Chapter 17

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It snowed in Lawrence, Massachusetts the week before the Christmas of 1911. While snow in December was not unusual, the skies seeming more menacing and the first flakes far larger, was, in part, due to the contrast with the mild weather of the first half of the month. Lulled into willful denial of the nature of the winters in New England, phrases like, ‘this might be the Winter without snow’, or ‘I can remember one year, must of been ’97 or ’98, when we went this far into the Winter without snow, it was a record warm year, that year’, floated in the air along the sidewalks, as tired workers and their nervous managers passed and mixed in a collegial stream, lulled by the un-seasonably warm temperatures of the first two weeks of the last month of the year.

The snow started early on Sunday, the 17th. As people walked to church, the pedestrian niceties possessed a subtle, barely-there, tinge of relief, ‘well, this is not unusual’ or ‘about time’, as if to express their disappointment at snow falling in December might somehow make matters worse. By unspoken agreement, no-one thought to complain about the snow fall, as if to speak of it, might, somehow, cause Winter to remember it’s true nature and make up for lost time. Like an elderly teacher nearing retirement, forgetting a scheduled exam, his students knew that to remind him of the over-sight would surely cause him to come up with a test far more difficult. All, as if to prove, somehow, that he wasn’t suffering from a mental decline.

It was still snowing when the faithful left their respective churches, stepping now more carefully, as the hour of snowing changed the sidewalks and paths through the Town Common from a condition of being ‘pretty’ to one warranting, ‘be careful’. Some were clearly disappointed that their prayers had been ignored. They did not express this disappointment for the same reasons the students of the increasingly senile teacher did not mention tests. Afternoon saw no end to the snow and the weather had taken the irrevocable step from, ‘snow’ to ‘a snow storm’. The un-seasonably green grass acquired 4 inches of snow cover by 3:00 pm and the sky grew darker than the clocks would require. Often, the early evening is when a mild snow storm begins to slow and stop, this was not to be, on this particular Sunday. By 6:00 pm the grey sky had turned a mottled black and it was as dark as midnight, the wind blew with increasing ferocity, out of the northeast. Old timers recognized the early signs of a blizzard and went about in their homes, making certain they knew where the candles and the empty buckets were, already wearing an extra sweater, as if to store up warmth against a very cold night.

***

“What the bloody hell are you talking about, Herlihy. Yes, I did, in fact, attend Dartmouth College. Speak up!!  No, I have not recommended that a study be done!”

Frederick Prendergast debated whether he should stand to make his point or remain seated. Both offered a certain advantage. Looking across his wide desk at the policeman, with the too shiny badge and shoes glistening with permanently fresh machine oil stains, he decided standing wasn’t worth the bother.

Sargent Herlihy was, at first, excited to hear from his Captain that he was asked to go the office of the CEO of the Essex Company. He genuinely, if not naively believed that anything he did that came to the attention to those who ran the City of Lawrence, would surely bode well for his career. Now, standing in front of an elaborately ornate desk, a single piece of furniture worth more than he was, Sargent Gareth Herlihy was having second thoughts about his ambition. The man behind the desk was the most powerful man in Lawrence, but there was something about the man that he just didn’t like.

“At least you didn’t add to our problems. Thank you for that, Sargent,”

Seeing the cop perk up and his chest swell at the attention, depressed Frederick Prendergast more than he was when he left Church for this ridiculously un-necessary meeting. That he was meant for better things than to ride herd on cops and Mill town toughs, was apparently still being overlooked by the owners of Lawrence, Massachusetts, the real owners, the Essex Company,

“Keep an eye on that Union Hall. There are changes coming. Changes that will not sit well with a certain, unruly element in town. Can I count on you, Sergeant Herlihy?”

“Yes sir, yes you can. I’m your man.”

Sargent Gareth Herlihy left the office of the CEO of the Essex Company feeling angry. He hoped that there would be trouble somewhere in town tonight, snow or no snow. Arresting unruly suspects usually cheered him up.

***

Almira knew she was dreaming. Sometimes this was very amusing, as she would wander the world of night and explore, secure in the knowledge that everything around her, large and small, threatening and inviting, was insubstantial and therefore not a particularly real danger to her.

This dream was different. Some of the more curious elements were oddly familiar and yet, somehow, seemed to deliberately hold back some critical bit of information or insight. The threatening and frightening elements of this particular dream were more vague than usual, darkly-foreboding feelings, like a low ground fog, moved silently, as if stirred by a night-breeze.

…she was walking away from a small cottage that stood at the base of immensely tall, red cliffs. Clearly someone’s home, it’s location did not seem to enjoy the benefit of being sheltered by the towering cliffs, but actually, was at risk. And it was not that rock shards, boulders might fall and crush it, rather the danger seemed to lie in how the cliffs seemed to grow, and in the process of growing, threaten to absorb the little house, turning it’s soft, warm light into hard, cold brick. There was a sound, the dreaming girl suddenly realized, a moaning that was coming from within the bricks.

Almira started to run from the cliffs and their song of despair. Coming to the top of a flower-covered hill, she stopped running and stood, paralyzed by the sight of endless plains, spreading out before her, farther than the eye could see. Small clumps of trees, many with a companion blue lake, dotted the nearly flat landscape, she looked for and failed to find any pattern to the arrangement. Both of these other-wise quite normal and even charming features, served only to make the endless fields seem even more soul-sapping. She turned to her left and saw a man, standing at a small crossroads, just a short distance from where she stood, (this being a dream, after all, Almira smiled to herself). The intersection, in the middle of the vast prairie, really was just a smallish square of prairie grass that was more trampled into dirt than the areas around it.

“Pardon me, can you tell me where I am?” She asked the man, who appeared not to notice her sudden arrival.

“No, but I would be happy to tell you where you should try to go.”

The man, who Almira thought looked a little like Emerson, was smoking a pipe that made her add, ‘and a bit of Abraham Lincoln’. Looking directly at her, the tall man began to re-fill his pipe. Somehow it had become enormous, despite the fact that he’d been smoking when she first noticed him. He continued to focus on his pipe, until he had it filled to his satisfaction, at which point he assumed the manner of an orator,

The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks. See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself to the average tendency.”

He looked off into the distance, as if for a dramatic effect and, then smiled to himself, while bending over to whisper in her ear,

“Even though I wrote that, I now think it’s rather obvious, don’t you? It was my good fortune to have first read it in public as a part of a sermon. Do you know how little people actually pay attention when listening to a sermon?”

Almira giggled and thought she felt something near her leg, looked down, but saw nothing.

Emerson/Lincoln stood looking at her and, with the air of an actor relaxing after a demanding performance, put his pipe away and said,

“My friend, Margaret Fuller, once said,

Two persons love in one another the future good which they aid one another to unfold.’

I rather like that one, don’t you?”

Almira found herself blushing, but nodded, her hand coming up to her face,

“and, personally, I think that this is the best we can hope for, but since I’m only a dream man…”

Again, Almira felt a warmth rise in her face and spread through her middle,

“…this is your dream about finding your way, I should try to be more sure of myself and therefore, helpful to you. So I will say,

‘If you go one way, it will be as it was. Of course, if you choose to go the other way, it will be as you hope. Neither is your choice alone’.”

Almira looked towards what felt like the western horizon, although she knew that in dreams, nothing was as it appeared to be, turned back to face the man and found only a plain field, a scattering of flowers growing in a pattern that hinted of a path.

‘Well,’ Almira thought, ‘I had better get moving’, as the far-off sound of a distant scream began to grow, coming from the direction of the tall, red cliffs…

 

The aroma of minestrone soup lifted Almira from her dream, the sound of a tea kettle gave her sleep-closed eyes a direction to look.

“Well, look who’s finally awake! Hey, good morning, sleepy head.”

Her friend, Annie LoPizzo, stood in front of the stove, in the kitchen end of the large room. Almira wrapped in a brown quilt, was lying on an even darker brown sofa, at the far end of this same room. Annie wore an apron around her waist and her long dark hair up in a bun. She lifted the kettle from the stove, poured boiling water into a small teapot and brought two cups, (decorated with a woodlands scene, done in pale blue and saucers with a gold band circling the rim), over to the low table in front of the couch. Returning to the stove, Annie brought back the teapot, a small sugar bowl and sat on the couch next to Almira, who had raised herself into a more upright position, while keeping the quilt nearly to her shoulders.

“I have to work the new Sunday second shift today. The Owners must have extra long Christmas gift lists this year.” Annie looked back towards the stove, got up and walked over to it, stirred the contents of a large sauce pan, and then arranged some plates on the kitchen table.

“It’s snowing, so I’m leaving a little early. I want to stop at the Union Hall to check on the Dombrovsky twins, before I go on to the Mill. Those girls are well-meaning and hard-working, but you’d think, with them being twins, it would be impossible to be so dumb! I’ll have to make sure that all the supplies are out on the counter. With this snow, I’m sure we’ll have people stopping by for supplies.”

Annie walked into the bedroom, unbuttoning her blouse, her apron left behind, draped on the back of one of the kitchen chairs. Pulling at the back of her skirt, she stepped out of it, never stopping, as she walked about the bedroom, gathering together the clothes she always wore to work at the Mill, clothes that were simple and fit closely to the body. She did not make this choice out of vanity, although a person would be forgiven for thinking so, as Annie had the kind of figure that men lusted for and women coveted.

As Annie stood in the bedroom doorway, wearing only her bloomers and a tooth brush, Almira found herself at once self-conscious and, at the same time, jealous of her friend’s natural comfort with herself. Her own figure was developed to quite an impressive degree, unfortunately, her self-confidence was not keeping pace with the increasingly prominent display of her feminine attributes.

“Sterling will be stopping by later, probably towards dinner, I have some gravy simmering on the stove for him. You should stay with the soup, maybe a little bread, ok?”

Almira pulled herself up on the couch,

“I’m not a little girl that you need to have someone babysit when you’re at work!”

Almira watched as Annie stopped working at her hair with her hairbrush. She saw a passing look pull at her friends face, the effort she made to resist whatever feeling possessed in that split-second showed in a slumping of her shoulders, her breasts, for just a fleeting time, made her look a woman of many more years and much more harder a life. Annie shook her head in a way that made Almira think of a horse, bridle removed after a long hard day pulling, shook her own mane and took the pleasure of feeling her hair brushing her shoulders to rejuvenate her,

“It wasn’t my idea! Your handsome and determined protector has been coming here everyday since …that night. Of course, you haven’t seen him because you’ve been asleep, healing. But he comes here every day. He sits and pretends to be interested in what my day has been like and how much work it is to run the Union Hall. And, you are never out of his sight.”

Almira looked surprised, a bit scared and yet quietly happy,

“What? You must be mistaken! You are why he is here, you’re so… so what men want. I am an ugly duckling in comparison. No, make that a ragged, under-sized raccoon. …with a very large nose.”

Annie stood and looked at Almira, and tilted her head, as if to get a different perspective, then walked over and, after brushing the girl’s hair down and to the side, stepped back and said,

“Well, now that I look, you’re right. But a very pretty, young raccoon.”

The room was silent, then both broke into laughter.

Almira Ristani hid from her thoughts nearly as much as from her emotions. To a passerby, she would seem cold, aloof and un-caring of the difficulties of those around her. However, to a friend and especially to a man who sees his life made worthwhile in her eyes, she was much, more more.  To them, she appears a small, delicately featured girl who might someday turn into a woman. Her pale blue eyes were the color of a distant horizon on a summer afternoon. However, at those rare moments when caught off-guard, the observant person might be startled by the depth in her eyes. And, if one were especially daring, ambition incited by love, they might even see in her eyes, back where the soul touches the world, a sparkle of night flashing like distant lightening.

“You know men, but you must be mistaken.”

“I do know men. And you are still very young and, probably the smartest person I know… old or young, man or woman. You have such a gift for understanding,”

Annie sat on the edge of the couch and, after brushing Almira’s hair from her eyes, put her hand over the girls heart,

“You still have so much to learn about this. And, unlike that sharp and controllable mind of yours, the heart is like the ocean, powerful and un-controllable. And you, my little raccoon, have everything to learn about that particular subject!”

Almira took Annie’s hand in hers and looked at her friend,

“Yes, I know the bruises will go away. But my nose is now different, it feels different on my face. I find myself trying to look around it. It makes me feel that I need to squint. This morning, when I looked in the mirror, I thought, ‘So this is what a young, growing witch sees when she looks in the mirror’.”

“Stop that! This instant!

Annie’s voice was angry and Almira was taken aback by it’s vehemence,

“I never want to hear you speak like that about yourself again! Ever! I am a very attractive and intelligent woman, and I have only attractive and intelligent people for friends. Are you calling me a liar? If you are, we cannot be friends. I don’t have friends who think that I don’t know what I’m talking about or am stupid or something!”

Almira felt a sudden dipping in her stomach at the emotion in her friends voice. The passion and sincerity made the prospect of their friendship being at risk, terribly real. Annie remained seated and, for the young girl, the feeling of safety in the small space between the back of the couch and her friends leg melted the cold fear and a happy sadness overwhelmed her. Almira grabbed Annie’s arm in a hug, like a child clutching at her mother’s dress, a universal signal for being in need of protection.

Annie sat and held her friends hands as the girl began to cry,

“I won’t. I promise! As long as you are my friend, then it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks of how I look, even the girl in my mirror.”

Almira curled on to her side, being very careful in resting her face against Annie’s leg. Annie stroked the girls hair, smoothing the tangles of fine hair, as if it was the tangle and confusion and knots that created the storm within her young friend, and to comb out and untangle the very, very light brown strands, would bring peace.

Without lifting her head, Almira spoke, almost into Annie’s thigh

“Exactly how well do you know men?”

Her body shook, as she tried to restrain her giggling.

Annie raised her eyebrow and looked sternly at the girl, both began to laugh,

“Your precious Mr Emerson and Mr Thoreau, with their lofty insights into the transcendental? They are children playing with wooden blocks compared to my understanding of the ways and nature of men! Your church-leading, college-men-of higher-education have not learned the secret language of boys who would be men. Young men speak words and think that we listen, seeing only the pretty pictures they paint with their voices. We listen and we watch, and …and, if we are smart, we learn to know them from what they do not say. Most of all, for those of us who are very, very smart, we learn from what they do not tell themselves.”

Leaning over the girl on the couch, Annie tucked in the quilt extra tight on the sides.

As Annie LoPizzo closed the apartment door, she looked and saw her houseguest on the couch with her books. Some lay open, across her lap and more on the floor, in front of the couch. Leather-bound pickets, running in staggered rows in the quiet before the battle.

***

Dorothy was out of the truck and running up to Eliza before Tom turned off the engine. She grabbed her friend in a hug that spoke of the quality of the time she spent apart much more eloquently than the amount of time passed.

“How long have you been waiting? I wish I’d known you were coming….” as she broke the hug first

“I only just got here. Don’t worry about me, I’ve had Henry Fonda here seeing that I didn’t get too bored.”

Dorothy watched as Eliza smiled at Hunk, barely keeping from licking her lips. For his part, Hunk only smiled into her friends dark eyes. Like a square of paper in a pan of developers solution, the parts appeared first, the meaning, second. With a feeling of surprise, tinged with something unidentifiable, she thought,

‘What happened to my scuff and stumble farmhand, Hunk? Eliza’s good with men, but I had no idea she could raise the not-yet-living to life.’

“Well, Dee, from the looks of your cute friend in the truck, you had some plans of your own, should I come back a little later?”

Eliza started to walk towards the cottage under the apple tree, next to the barn, “Come on, Hank, these two clearly have something on their minds. Show me all those books Dorothy told me so much about.”

Dorothy felt a hand entwine her fingers, large and strong, forcing them apart, forming a grasp that was at once rough and at the same time intimately exciting.

“Wait. No need. We were just stopping by the house for…”

Before she could complete the sentence, a distant sound, growing from the East, caused everyone, except Eliza and Hunk and Tom Hardesty to turn and look out over the fields towards County Rd #2 and the approaching vehicle.

“Shit! Why couldn’t it be a tornado tearing up the road instead of them!”

Dorothy looked around the open yard area, first at the house, then the barn and then the small cottage, where Eliza and Hunk had managed to get halfway to, and then at the two vehicles, Tom’s stake body truck, with Hardesty Farms painted on its rusty blue side panels and Eliza’s bright yellow Packard, it’s black canvas top making it look like a very large bee, sitting still between the flowers in a country yard.

“Hunk! Take Tom to the barn and Eliza, you stay with me. Let me do the talking, ok?”

Dorothy looked at the other three young people, Hunk looked thoughtful, Tom looked determined and Eliza was clearly amused.

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Chapter 16

Featured

Dorothy stopped at the end of the driveway at 10:15. With her left foot down for balance, she looked up County Rd #2 to the west and saw what she expected, a ribbon of tar, flat yet undulating, bound for the horizon. To her right, nearly the exact same view. There was a difference, (minor to one, very, terribly significant to another), the green and white sign announcing, ‘Circe 23 Miles’. She’d have left earlier, but preferred to avoid unnecessary attention, and waited until Aunt Emily and Uncle Henry drove-off in the truck. Now, sitting on her bike, she looked at the small book bag in the wicker basket attached behind the seat, there, to provide her with a ‘reason’ for going into town, should the need for an explanation of her whereabouts become necessary. Dorothy didn’t expect to need the books. During breakfast, Auntie Em talked vaguely about, ‘seeing to some matters in Town, stopping at the Town Hall, after Henry loaded up on the supplies from the Feed and Grain’. Hunk was at the breakfast table, as always, but seemed more introspective than usual, enough so to cause Dorothy to think, ‘something’s bothering Hunk’. She said nothing, however, her own day’s plans demanded her full attention. She woke earlier than normal, that morning, with a single thought, ‘Get an answer from Mrs. Gulch.’

Nights had not, of late, been especially kind to Dorothy.  The smothering embrace of July, with it’s hot-during-the-day, very-warm-through-the-night temperatures did nothing to help. She’d discovered that, if she found a way to exert herself in the course of the day, her nights would be more restful, or failing that, at least be mercifully dreamless. 

It was the dreams, in-between the tossing and turning, that wore most heavily. And it wasn’t the content of the dreams that clung to her mind, like prickly vines in tall grass, pulling and pricking the skin with very small, seemingly insignificant thorns. Until, that is, they embedded themselves under the skin, then their seeming insignificance was transformed into something much more difficult to ignore. Stand perfectly still, in the middle of the thorn patch and you will be spared. Try to escape, that became a different affair entirely.
It wasn’t even her dreams of Oz, with friends left behind, and it wasn’t the dreams of New York with her friends who waited there, that kept Dorothy awake at night, and spending her day wanting to find a place to sleep.

What weighed on her was the mixing, and subtle distortion, of what she loved. Her memories of Oz were of triumph over adversity, through drawing together some odd, (actually very odd) characters, and sharing the feeling of being in a place where she belonged. Her thoughts about school, back in New York, would come out of the pre-dream quiet and she’d relive the challenge of finding her way in a very different environment, with some very different people. But, as she did in Oz, Dorothy prevailed. Her feelings grew stronger and stronger for her new life in a place where variety was desirable, and routine was a necessary evil. There, with her new friends, she knew that life was meant to be an adventure.

Dorothy would wake from these dreams, half-dreams and forgotten memories of dreams, feeling terribly lost. Worse, feeling alone. Even worse than that, feeling like she did not know which of the worlds that she traveled through each night, was meant to be her world. When, on those mornings she couldn’t wait for dawns’ light to offer a direction to run and escape the dreams, the question was always the same, ‘how could she know where she belonged, if she didn’t know who she was in the first place‘.

Dorothy Gale pushed off with her left foot, letting the bicycle’s front wheel wobble, daring it to cause her to fall to the road. ‘That,’ she thought as her speed rose, ‘would serve me right and at least it would be something I could do something about.’

She rode east on County Rd #2, determined to see a sleeping woman about her life.

***

“You!”

Dorothy was not really surprised, at the sight of Nurse Griswold standing alone, (‘come to think of it’, Dorothy thought, ‘she’s always the only one in the Ward.’), at the windows at the far end of the row of beds in the Charity Ward of St Mary’s Hospital. She suspected that her own lack of surprise that Nurse Griswold would be in the Ward today, was because her visit was unplanned. ‘And, that’, thought Dorothy, ‘should make it very surprising’.

Dorothy felt her anger return. Like an old friend, it beckoned her, an offer of the worn and tired toys of youthful indulgence, ragged dolls with eyes sewn back, almost in place. This anger was from a place inside her, where feelings and emotions that were meant to hurt another person, are stored against future need. Much like the care that must be taken with curare tipped darts, it’s a dangerous balance of readiness against the very real risk of self-inflicted damage. Righteous accusation is one of the poison-tipped weapons, that, unlike simple hate and anger, absolutely must be personal. Otherwise, like a cannonball with an insufficient charge of gunpowder, there’s noise and light, but little in the way of damaging punch. Dorothy felt a need to let this mysterious woman know that she was no longer surprised, (or impressed), by the way the tall, thin nurse would appear at just the right time. She’d decided that Nurse Griswold was not a threat, but hoped to dispel the sense of ‘otherness, mysterious power’. In this, Dorothy’s age betrayed her, the conviction that the power to make her feel off-balance lay in the inscrutable aura Nurse Griswold wore, as much as her starched white uniform. What nurtured her impatience, was the attitude that this woman presented every time they met, the air of nonchalance and total confidence. It made Dorothy Gale want to shout, ‘Just wake her up and let me get my answers!’

Since returning home for the Summer, Dorothy found impatience to be her dominant mental state. Impatience with the sluggish pace of life on the farm, impatient at the lack of interesting people in Town, impatient with her life…..

“Well, are you going to ask me?”

It sounded like Nurse Griswold was standing right behind her, however, Dorothy was determined not to be tricked and refused to turn around to answer. She was utterly certain that, were she to turn, Nurse Griswold would not be standing behind her. Instead, after the inevitable split-second of disorientation, she would be standing at the far end of the Ward, just as natural as could be. Dorothy decided to take matters into her own hands, and, smiling confidently, closed her eyes.

‘Lets see her trick me now!’ she thought, feeling a surge of welcomed aggressiveness.

“That doesn’t work more than once, you know,”

the voice seemed to approach her from far away, (farther away than should have been possible, the Charity Ward only had 2 rows of 5 beds on opposite sides of the room). Dorothy resolved to keep her eyes closed, but her face started to shift into a frown, as the thought that she was being trapped by the will of someone, someone who should be in no position to do so…

“You are a willful young lady. Which can be so very good a quality. I knew a girl, not that different from you, who had such Will. But her life was different from yours, she had to find her way to where she knew she belonged. You, my willful young Dorothy, have the opposite problem.
The Will  is very often the most difficult of strengths. Until you learn to master that power, it almost always brings more trouble than good. It will make a normal life boring, and a peaceful, satisfying life seem like an un-attainable dream.”

“I don’t understand what you mean,”

Dorothy said, closed eyes looking towards the bed of the still-silent woman,

“All I want is to ask Miss…Mrs Gulch a harmless question or two. Yet every time I come here, she is asleep and you are keeping me from waking her up. If you’d get out of my way, I’ll get my answers and leave and you won’t have me bothering any more.”

Nurse Griswold’s voice was very, very close,

“You are still trapped by your Will. You know that it shouldn’t be so, that surely everyone is playing tricks on you. You know what you know and you know where you’ve been and as much as you tell everyone here about it, they do not listen. And even that wouldn’t bother you, that you don’t know. What hides in the night and tugs at your mind is that all you need to know is, where is your real home, who is your real family.”

***

Dorothy pushed through the swinging doors, one-step-short of running, and went down the corridor away from Ward C. She needed to find someone, a person, a child, any listener who, by listening, would allow her to believe that she knew where she was, and what she had to do with her life.

She stopped at every open door, sometimes just looking in, other times, if there was a person in a bed, and they noticed her, she offered a cheery hello. She tried, unsuccessfully to avoid thinking, ‘I wish you could escape this room and I could switch places, at least then I’d know where I belonged.’ Finally, she came to the Main Lobby. The high-ceilinged space also housed the Main Admitting Desk, which faced the Main Entrance and, off to the side, a suite of offices. Set off in a short corridor, really just an alcove, were three doors, frosted glass etched to identify the occupants. To the left, Finance and Accounting, to the right Medical Services and in the center,the Office of the Medical Director, which, of course, was the office of Dr. Thaddeus Morgan.

Dorothy walked towards the offices, but before she could knock on the closed door, she heard Dr. Morgan’s distinctive, over-enunciated voice. The transom window, tilted outwards on it’s chain, served as quite an effective amplifier of the conversation in the office,

“Mrs Gale, I assure you, the plans for the renovation are on track. But a project like this takes time.”

Dorothy jumped back, that her Aunt might be in the hospital was surprising, and not a little disturbing. She strained to hear her Aunt’s voice. All she could hear were short, consonant-laden phrases, in a hard-edged contralto, the thin, tight lips of Emily Gale gave her words as much warmth as the chrome on a new car’s bumpers. She knew her Aunt was sitting opposite the Medical Director, by the time of his responses. That she didn’t hear anything of her Uncle Henry served only to confirm his presence, the silent male at his wife’s side, in case there was ever a question of her authority to speak. There rarely ever was a challenge, at least not more than once.

“Yes, the architectural plans are finalized and submitted to the Planning Commission in Town Hall. Why? Because there’s a Process of Review. No, I don’t think they’re dragging their feet.”

“Yes, they do appreciate how much the Gale Wing will benefit all of Circe.”

“No, I don’t think you should go and get them straightened out. Well, no, that’s not how these kinds of projects are done. Well, I suppose, if you spoke to the Building and Planning Officials. Well, I’m not certain how appropriate this conversation is. No, I meant nothing by that, it’s simply that I am responsible to the Board of Directors… yes, I know you’re on the Board. And Chairwoman of the Endowment Committee. No, I did not forget that.”

“There are, in fact, still 5 patients in the Charity Ward. I hardly think that’s an appropriate thing to say. We have a Charter and a Mission to serve the community. Yes, the State government does have a say and most certainly an influence. I’m sure you do.”

“No, I assure you, I’m not being sarcastic. The people of Circe, all the people, rely on St Mary’s Hospital for care.”

“Certainly. I will continue to do my job, The full scope of my job. Yes, I do know that I serve at the pleasure of the Board.”

“Why sure, I’ll go with you to the Town Hall, if you want to review the applications. There have been no challenges to the Hospital Expansion Project.
Let me tell my secretary and we can walk right across the Square, get this matter straightened out, this very afternoon.”

Dorothy hit the brass panic bar of the Exit door with both hands, the double sound of the bar hitting the door, and the latch releasing, echoed behind her as she ran down the stairs. She extended her arms out to her sides as she descended the stairs. A passerby might think, ‘why, that girl is not running that fast, or maybe she’s older than she looks’. A more observant passerby might take notice that the running girl’s hands were turned, her palms, faced back, as if expecting to be grasped. And a very observant passerby, would watch as a flurry of emotion crossed her face, like shadows on a windy day. Determination stumbled into surprise, which was slowed and pulled down into disappointment, which, as the girl reached the sidewalk, still running, took hold as a frown of anger. Letting her arms fall to her sides, she ran towards the Town Square. She felt like crying, which only made her angry, the anger stirred feelings of loss and regret. She tried to outrun her feelings, leaving one behind, only to overtake another,

“Get me out of here!”

Tom Hardesty was sitting on the back of his stake-body truck, playing his guitar. Were someone to ask why he picked the back of his truck, in the Town Square, to play, he’d of said something like, “Why not?”

That answer would have told them everything important about Tom Hardesty.

Sliding off the end of the truck, just as an elderly couple made their way past, busy looking at the sidewalk two steps ahead to avoid any chance of tripping, Tom played a vamped G chord and sang,

“I‘m back in the saddle again
Out where a friend is a friend
Where the longhorn… Where the girls can be so good
… If the boys do what they should
Back in the saddle again”

Tom laughed at his lyrics, put his guitar behind the front seat and started the truck,

“Hey, Dorothy, what about your bike?”

Dorothy was turned in her seat, trying to get the truck door to stay shut. She pulled it closed, but when she let go of the torn-padded arm rest on the inside, the door swung outward. She pulled it shut again and holding it closed for an extra second, took her hand off the arm rest and watched, as it slowly swung out and open. She pulled it quite firmly, firmly enough to cause the half-open window to rattle from the impact of the door with the frame of the truck. Again, once she gave up her hold, it would swing ajar. Dorothy grabbed the arm rest with both hands and slammed it inwards, the tired-rubber gasket that lined the edge of the door barely blunting the metal smacking on metal sound. She started to slam the door closed, always allowing enough time, after the door was in shut position, to see if it stayed. It did not. As she began to slam the door faster and faster, a rhythmic punctuation formed. She turned her head towards Tom who, back against his own door, leaned towards her, his left forearm on the steering wheel,

In cadence, and with a tone, part savage and part despairing as counterpoint to the harsh sound that filled the cab with the sound of metal on metal,

“First of all, …it’s ….not ….my …bike,
second …of …all,
I …don’t …give …a ….good ….god!!damn!!”

Dorothy stopped on the last slam, holding the door shut, un-willing to let go, as if to let it, would prove that she was powerless. Her shoulders slumped, worn down by the pounding noise and stared out the half-open window. The scent of Tom’s cigarette breath and sweat moved slowly around her neck as he reached towards her. She felt the slight wood-rough callous as his other hand reached around her left side and covered her hands holding onto the armrest. His scent was a spark to her memories of their time together, as mundane as the feel of sweaty sheets on a shared bed. Tom pulled the door frame with a sudden jerk, down near the door lock and she heard a metal-on-metal click, as somewhere inside the door the latch snapped free and seated itself into the locking mechanism. She felt the tension in her shoulders vibrate and dissolve and leaned back into his white tee-shirted shoulder, morning stubble grazing, barely pulling, on her ear lobe.

Dorothy took the hand that covered hers on the armrest, turned it over so his palm faced up, her much smaller fingers fitting between his, traced a scar along the bottom of his thumb, ran a finger over the smoothed over finger tips, raised her eyebrow, ‘guitar calluses’, he whispered, his breath moving her hair slightly. Taking both his hands, Dorothy held them to her and leaned back, tension flowing from her,

“This is nice,”

A murmur/vibration in her left ear,

“Mmmm”

“And, it’s 11:00 am in front of the Public Library. We need to go.”

Tom Hardesty looked sideways at her and smiled,

“You pick the place, I’ll take you there.”

***

Hunk stepped out on the porch hearing the first fly buzzing of sound out on County Rd #2. From the small, plain porch of the small cottage, he stood and watched as a dry gray cloud of dust raced along the road, coming from the direction of Town, headed in the direction of everywhere else.

“Hunh” was his comment at the sight of the cloud, barely losing any speed as it turned and raced up to the house. The wind was just right, a light breeze that blew in the direction of the car. The result was the car stayed in the middle of the cloud, barely visible, occasionally the noon day sun struck chrome and the effect was flashes of lightning in a distant thundercloud.

The car came to a stop in the middle of the dirt area that separated the house from the barn, (and Hunk’s cottage). The dust cloud kept moving and soon revealed a yellow Packard convertible, idling and finally, with a stuttering mechanical cough, the engine went quiet, as Hunk approached the driver’s side door.

“May I help you?”

The window, dust-caked into near opacity, rolled down and he saw a remarkable woman turn to look at him.

“Yeah, I’m looking for the Gale house, Dorothy Gale. Do I have the right place?”

“You must be Eliza”

Hunk amended ‘woman’ into ‘girl’ as she smiled at him,

“Damn it! Did someone call ahead? I wanted to surprise D. All that trouble to waste!”

Hunk, smiled to himself and thought, ‘lets make that ‘young woman’ for now’, and leaned towards the open window.

“No, sorry! no one called ahead. At least not that I know of,”

“Then how could you know who I am… I don’t know who you are, so how…”

“Well, it was just a lucky guess, I guess,” Hunk started to step back a step,

“I saw the California plates and your accent is not from around here and you’re attract…young and… ”

“So, none of the girls in Kansas are to your liking?” Eliza smiled innocently and watched for the defensive stumbling to begin.

“What? Well, up until now…”

Seeing the young woman was obviously about to get out of the car, Hunk leaned forward and grabbed the door handle. But didn’t open it, rather, he waited until she looked up and nodded permission for him to open the door.

Surprising himself, Hunk held the door open with his left hand and offered his right to the girl as she got out of the driver’s seat. She reached out without looking and moved without any effort to look and see if he was going to be there for her. It was a practiced, though natural grace and very much self-assured. The impression she gave as she stood was that the sun would have sooner risen in the West, than Hunk not be there to offer her a support. She was as much what he imagined a starlet would be like in real life, as the license plates claimed California as origin. Hunk was more surprised by his eagerness to remain standing, in a place that would make it likely that he would be very close to this girl. To his credit, he recognized the sudden leaning on him, as she closed the door, as a sensual gift to worthy staff, rather than a clumsiness or imbalance. He was certain without reason that this girl was rarely, if ever, off-balance.

‘To the manor born,’ popped into his head and he unsuccessfully stifled a burst of laughter.

For the first time, the young woman looked her probable age, as she turned and said, with a slight edge to her voice, the hint of a raised eyebrow,

“What?’

“Sorry, Miss… a phrase came into my mind, quite un-invited, I might add. In my defense, I was laughing at how in-appropriate the sub-conscious can be…”

“It’s Miss Thornberg. But, hey, seeing how you’re packing a pretty sophisticated, and obviously affectionate sub-conscious, under the farmer jeans, you may address me as Eliza.”

Hunk stared in silence and, to her credit, the young woman started giggling, a split second before Hunk

***

“Aunt Em and Uncle Henry are meeting with that Dr Morgan. He’s always strutting around like he needs to make noise or people will ignore him. There’ll be no one home.”

Tom slid back into driver position, and headed the truck towards Main St. He had to reach over the steering wheel to shift gears with his left hand, as Dorothy still had possession of his right. Just as they pulled up to the Stop sign, at the corner where the blacksmith shop used to be, Dorothy seemed to notice the hand she held in her lap, looked over at him and said,

“Can I give you a hand?”

Tom laughed,

“It’s your’s for now, I will be needing it back at some point, say when a guitar needs playing or a cigarette needs smoking. Deal?”

Dorothy Gale made no move to let go of his hand and looked out the window as the houses began to turn, as they always did in Circe, Kansas, back into limitless fields and distant horizons.

“Deal”

***

I stayed where I was, next to the tiny, very battered, but suddenly quite attentive girl on the couch, as Officer Herlihy spread his presence through the room. Naturally, he was focused on Annie, but his hands were at his side and his attention was growing in intensity, like the blackening curl of newspaper, about to burst into obvious flame. Not that I didn’t like cops. Actually, I didn’t like cops. But I kept in mind, that my experience had always been about me, now, here in the Union Hall, it wasn’t as simple as a problem between me and authority.

“I’ll be needing a statement, Miss LoPizzo, from you and, er… your friends. If it had been a mere nuisance call, I could wish you a good evening and Merry Christmas. But, Saints preserve me, the lass here is awfully hurt looking and, the lad next to her, well, I don’t believe we’ve made acquaintance. You understand, don’cha?”

Herlihy continued into the room as he spoke, a trick I’d learned long ago. I sat and watched as Annie smiled,

“Why, of course, Officer Herlihy, or is it Sergeant, surely it’s now Sergeant?”

He actually started to blush and bent slightly at the waist and, for the millionth time, I felt awe and despair. Awe for the power of a strong, sexy woman, and despair for the avid vanity of my gender, when confronted with the evolutionary imperative.

“Thank you Miss LoPizzo, it was just recently I was promoted.”

“Surely it was in recognition of a criminal capture or a mystery un-ravelled,” Annie moved to between the cop and the couch,

“Let me take your coat and I’ll see if we don’t have something hot to warm you against the bitter cold outside. I just can’t imagine how you do what you do, in such dangerous and difficult conditions, and still have time to be kind to a woman working late at night.”

As Annie stepped between where Almira lay and I sat, on the edge of the couch, I felt something move under my overcoat. I started to get up but, instead, looked down at the girl, who was staring at me with an odd expression. Relaxing, I realized that what I felt was Almira’s left hand, under the folds of my overcoat. Without showing any sign of anything but being a badly injured girl, she took my revolver, and keeping it out of sight, moved it from my back pocket to under the blanket, and nestled the gun next to her thigh. Out of easy sight of anyone but an amazing girl and an increasingly pissed-off young man.

Putting the cop’s coat on the desk in the middle of the room, Annie said,

“Oh! where are my manners!! You must forgive me! All the excitement of a guest this late, and a Police Sergeant at that!”

I watched in amazement, as she actually took the cop by the arm and walked him over to where we sat. I could see the war in Herlihy’s face. Suspicion of me, concern for a hurt little girl and obvious infatuation with the woman who lead him around like a prized bull.

“Sargent Herlihy, this is Sterling Gulch, Sterling, this is Sergeant Herlihy.”

I stared at him and he stared back, the natural tension re-establishing itself, like a dog pack on the scent of an injured rabbit. Annie stepped over to the couch, and sat on the edge, butting me down further down to the farther end, and took a handkerchief from her blouse, dabbed gently at Almira’s forehead. To his credit, it took Herlihy only 45 seconds to stop staring at Annie’s cleavage and to look at the girl.

“Aye and you say, she slipped and fell?”

“Outside, on the sidewalk, terrible luck, she had her arms full of dry goods that we were bringing here. For the out-of-work children, you know.”

Herlihy leaned in, to get a closer look at the ice pack, precariously perched on Almira’s forehead above the bridge of her nose. He didn’t grab another peak at Annie until he straightened up and pronounced,

“Well, a terrible accident it is, but there’s nothing criminal about the misfortunes of young, well-meaning girls.”  He stood and looked around the room again, ending with me, now sitting at the far end of the couch.

“And, you Mr. Sterling, you I don’t recognize and I take great pride in knowing the people in my neighborhoods.”

“He’s…” Annie was standing now.

“He’s not a mute. Are you, boyo?”

Herlihy was clearly bored with the situation and hoping to stir something up, make it worth his while coming down here in the cold night. Or, at very least, give him a story to tell the other cops, as they changed their uniforms in the morning for overalls or other clothes for the part-time jobs at the Mills.

“No, sir. I’m, not. I’m down here from Dartmouth. The college, you know. Here as part of a project to study the amazing transformation achieved by the Essex Company here in Lawrence. I’m supposed to apprentice to the Management, in one of  the Mills, all under the direction of Mr. Prendergast. My Sociology Professor and he went to college together and they thought it would be an interesting experiment. You know, seeing the great City with all it’s parts, working together like an efficient machine.”

I could see Herlihy’s eyes sharpen at my mention of Prendergast, which didn’t surprise me, and then glaze over as I started heaping the bullshit on about scholarship and study, which also did not surprise me.

“Well, it’s getting late. See that you get this lassie some proper care and,” staring at me again, “try and not cause any trouble.”

Annie somehow had gone and gotten the cop’s coat and helped him into it, all while walking him to the door.

“Thank you again, Sargent Herlihy.”

Leaning against the door, Annie sighed,

“Too much excitement for one night. Time to pack it in.”

I stood next to the couch and looked at Annie and then down at Almira. Annie LoPizzo gave off a sense of energy and life that, even now, 12:45 am on a December Sunday morning, filled the room. I smiled to myself and thought, ‘the cop didn’t stand a chance’. The girl on the couch, now she was another matter entirely. Where Annie radiated energy, Almira was simply intense. Nothing you would necessarily notice, especially from a girl covered in bandages and blood traces, but there was a strength and power within her that made Annie’s natural brightness seem to dim to nearly nothing. Even with her eyes swollen, beginning to show the inevitable bruising, there was an intensity that made me want to let myself fall into them,

She tried to sit up. Annie was next to me in a flash.

“ah deed ta go nome,” as she got an elbow on the arm rest.

“You, my young friend, are coming to my house and I won’t hear any talk otherwise. Even if you do recover the ability to speak in English!” Annie looked at me,

“My apartment is on the first floor, not two blocks from here. She lives in a third floor walk-up. I won’t have her trying to go up and down that many stairs, at least until she heals some.”

“Don’t look at me, I agree! She’s the one you have to convince.”

I was speaking to Annie while looking Almira in the eyes. She had a look of uncertainty, but the exhaustion was winning out. Finally, she slumped back on the couch.

“O day, nust a while”

“There! It’s settled!” Annie smiled at a problem solved. She looked at me and said,

“Pick her up and bring her to my apartment,” and walked towards the back room to get their coats.

I looked at the girl on the couch. She looked back up to me. I’m 6 feet 2 inches tall and in pretty good condition. The girl on the couch looked to be 5 feet 6 inches, had light brown hair and a young girl’s version of the body of a woman. I looked this girl in the eyes and did not, could not, move.

“Well, come on, Sterling! It’s late! Hop to it, pick Almira up and lets go!” Annie had her coat on and held Almira’s coat, intending to wrap her in it, once I had her off the couch.

“Nope,” I said to Annie, never taking my eyes off Almira, whose eyes had become pools of fear and pain and, …something that I could not name. I stood and watched, as a part of me edged closer and closer to the depths in her eyes.

“Not until she asks me to,” still not turning away, with an effort, I added what I hoped was a lightness to my voice, “I’ve seen what this little girl is capable of and I will not do anything without her permission.”

“Oh, come on!” Annie sounded impatient, but there was a new look in her eyes, as if seeing Almira differently, because of me standing over her.

“Besides, she has my gun,”

I laughed and the tension spread more evenly among the three of us. When I looked back at Almira, there was a look that I hadn’t seen before… in anyone. It was a look that I hoped never to be without,

“Here we go,”

I picked Almira Ristani up in my arms, turned to let Annie wrap her warmly and walked towards the door. I could see Almira’s eyes close into a peaceful sleep by the time I stepped out into the cold December morning.

Chapter 15

Featured

It was around 11:00 am by the time Eliza Thornberg pulled away from the TWA terminal and started her adventure. As arranged, her car was waiting, gassed up and ready to go. She tipped the skycap just enough to make him hesitate, smiled and drove away.

With the radio turned up and the Packard’s convertible top down, Eliza sang along to the radio, as she drove west on US 50, quickly breaking free of the slower traffic that spread out, like tangling weeds in a lake, from the little businesses, stores and shops of the small towns that clustered around Kansas City. Within an hour, she passed a gilt-lettered sign that informed all motorists that they were, in fact, leaving, ‘Gardner, Kansas’, ‘pop. 783’. The sign, did, however, make a point to assure all that their return would be welcomed. Eliza drove on, out into a very unfamiliar part of the country.

US 50 South was not the tabletop-flat road she’d imagined, listening to her college roommate, Dorothy Gale, describe as, ‘a land so big, the sky went from the top of your head, straight out to forever‘. Eliza had a new appreciation for how difficult an adjustment it must have been for her friend, coming from this strangely huge, but empty land, to New York, which was also huge, but in a very, very different way. As she drove, she realized that even the hilly terrain was different from any other place she’d been, and for a girl of 19, Eliza Thornberg was very well-travelled. There were hills, but they tended to raise the roads gradually, rather than stand in the way, forcing the pavement to climb up and over them. Eliza was very pleasantly surprised by the number of lakes that sparkled in the distance, blue against an increasingly uniform light brown. She was glad her father had a business partner who, owing him a favor, was only too happy to make a car available for Eliza’s use. In fact, he’d offered to provide the use of his chauffeur, but that would have taken the adventure out of her plan. Her father maintained his normal reserve during the telephone call she made to inform him of her change in travel arrangements. He clearly thought her plan to visit a friend in Kansas was a good idea, ‘a grand adventure’ as he put it. That she was returning home, alone, might have been a factor in his positive reaction. But then again, Ted Thornberg was far too good a businessman and poker player to show his hand so easily.

The drive down the far slope of a particularly prominent hill, about an hour outside of Kansas City, caused her musical accompanist, the radio, to fade into silence. Left off by the side of the road, Fred Astaire, a very urbane scarecrow in fedora and silk suit, sang desperately at the receding convertible,

“oh, I love to climb a mountain,
and reach the highest peak,
but it doesn’t thrill me half as much
As dancing cheek to cheek…”

Feeling more alone now, the silent radio becoming just another gauge on the dashboard, clearly on empty, Eliza thought about her decision to cut short her trip to Hollywood. On the telephone to her father, she explained that she didn’t see being in the movies  as anything she wanted to do for too long a time. She added that her friend, Jack, was incredibly busy with his own work for the studios and, besides, it was just too sunny all the time. Her father seemed to accept her story at face value, no small relief to Eliza, as she recalled her first and last movie audition,

“Liza! babe! you’re home! Early! How’d the audition go?” Jack walked into the living room of the bungalow as Eliza slammed the door behind her and threw her purse in the general direction of the sofa.

Eliza stood, hands on her hips and stared back at her current boyfriend and Hollywood Insider, Jack Clayton. Fortunately for him, her anger had subsided enough during the cab ride from the studio to eliminate the danger of flying objects. It was difficult to maintain genuine fury when the weather was perfect, the streets were lined with Palm Trees and she saw Clark Gable, sitting at a table outside a small cafe on the corner of Sunset and Vine. Of course, it didn’t help that she was as angry at herself, as at her boyfriend. It was Eliza’s stated goal to become a movie star and she’d insisted that Jack help make that happen. While her first week in California was taken up with the normal sight-seeing, as appropriate to a well-heeled tourist’s introduction to the lifestyle in Tinsel Town, Eliza quickly became bored with the parties and the poolside afternoons. She reminded Jack of his promise, a promise that, in Eliza’s mind, was ‘part of the deal’.
Since the age of ten, especially during the holiday season, Eliza Thornberg endured hearing from countless doting aunts and overbearing uncles, how fortunate she was to have inherited her mother’s good looks. Less frequently remarked upon was her natural shrewdness, a talent for negotiation, which, as any successful negotiator will attest to, required a certain ruthlessness. This talent, ‘to close the deal’, was as much her father’s genetic contribution, as were her mother’s high cheekbones and hooded eyes.

Finally, Jack relented and announced one morning that a friend of his was directing a movie and did, in fact, need to cast a young woman as a newlywed living in suburbia. He seemed uncertain about the details, other than they were referring to it as, ‘an adult film’. Eliza prided herself on her sophistication, but was at a loss for the term, ‘adult film’, despite the hurried research on the film industry, prior to leaving Philadelphia. She assumed it meant the movie would be something along the lines of a ‘drawing-room drama’, like Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Importance of being Earnest’.
Basil, who introduced himself as the assistant director, told Eliza that the scene was of a romantic interlude, and that she should act… ‘un-inhibitedly in-love’. The set was a perfect replica of a modern suburban living room, complete with fireplace and a sofa. That her audition would entail doing a complete scene, was a definite boost to her optimism, her self-confidence quickly eroded when she was handed a skimpy negligee and told that all she had to do was wait for the doorbell to ring, get up from the couch, go to the door and open it.

Eliza Thornberg sat on the leather couch, the satiny material of the negligee offered no hope of holding her position, unless she put her arm on the back of the couch and leaned on her elbow. She was encouraged when Basil gave her a ‘thumbs up’ and shouted ‘Action!’

The doorbell rang, Eliza slid into a standing position and walked to the door, thinking, ‘this acting business doesn’t seem so tough’ and opened the door.

The Postman was naked. He was more than naked, he was enthusiastically naked.

Later, back at his house, Jack suggested that the scene was ‘set up’ to elicit as spontaneous a reaction as possible, appropriate to the fact Eliza had never acted in a movie before, at least that’s what he said, after Eliza stopped yelling.

Eliza was honest enough with herself to accept that much of her anger grew from the fact that it was her idea that Jack arrange for her to get a part in a movie. She even wanted to believe, if only just a little, that he had no idea that the movie was intended for a more specialized audience.

“Well, I certainly was surprised! In my defense, they did say to act naturally and my reaction was spontaneous, especially to the naked postman. I slammed the door in his ….face”

Jack apologized, well into the night, and the morning saw the two friends again. Eliza Thornberg’s dream of stardom was over and she was awake. Awake, she wanted to go home where men are not naked, at least until it was time for them to be naked, usually when told it was time.

The idea of surprising Dorothy at home in Kansas came out of nowhere. So, on July 15th, with Jack Clayton still trying to talk her out of it, Eliza Thornburg walked across the tarmac and boarded the DC3, bound for Kansas City.

As the sun moved towards evening, the miles passed. The car sped down US 50, a cocoon of leather, glass and steel, peaceful against the steady, softly-ragged sound of the Kansas air, fleeing the car at 60 miles an hour. The radio, silent since an hour south of Kansas City, would, at random intervals, spray the car’s interior with bursts of static, like dream-mutterings of a drunk at a bar, hinting at the promise of music, but serving only as a reminder of its uselessness. Alongside the highway, always, were the fields, some cultivated, most, not. The distant rolling hills only accentuated the monotony of vast land. The road ahead seemed endless, the horizon taunting, the promise of an ending, a destination where all the boredom could be cashed in for a reward. Yet, every time she reached it, it would, retreat, like a con man in a nursing home, endless lies forgotten as soon heard, hope remained just out of reach. The rearview mirror told a different tale, in it the road disappeared up an imaginary hill. It occurred to Eliza that, maybe, what she saw in the rearview mirror, was the road returning to the world she knew, the world of buildings full of busy people and shops that beckoned those with spare time, to add to the variety of their already dynamic lives. Her life back home in Philadelphia, or at school in New York, seemed impossibly far away, as if the featureless landscape that surrounded her, would, given the opportunity, swallow up the buildings and parks, museums and bus stops, digesting the energy and creativity of the masses of people, smoothing everything over with grass and small groves of trees.

Eliza was dragged from her deepening introspection by two very real and persuasive elements of life, the need to pee and a road sign (announcing ‘Emporia 20 Miles’). The fields that spread to either side of the highway, like the wings of some huge, mythological bird condemned to be trapped in the earth, began to show more frequent signs of cultivation. Soon houses appeared, like random plantings in the rolling landscape, increasing in density, growing up on plots much smaller than the horizon-spanning fields that were her companion through most of the long afternoon. Eliza was certain she’d returned to civilization when she came to a railroad crossing. The warning signs and lights seemed frivolously indulgent, in light of the fact that, from the convertible, she could easily see 10 miles up the track and 10 miles down the track. She thought, ‘well, maybe when the crops are in and the ranch hands have had too much to drink, the crossing gates serve to slow them down, at least long enough to notice a mile long locomotive’.

Emporia (pop. 673) was small. Eliza drove down the Main St thinking, ‘my God, this a train stop, with an outgoing personality’. The town consisted of two blocks that began with a Lutheran Church and ended with a gas station, as if one was there to help you decide if you belonged, and the other was for when you decided that you did not. Eliza parked the convertible in front of a luncheonette, ‘Nan’s Home Cooking and Sundries’. The interior, insufficiently cooled by two ceiling fans, turning in circles slowly enough to elicit curiosity as to where the air went, was long, narrow and dark towards the back. There was a faded-pink formica counter along the left side and on the right were two small round tables, both occupied. She went to the cashier, asked for a lunch that she didn’t want, a coffee that she very much-needed, and the location of the lady’s room. When she returned she sat on a stool and looked with some fascination at the single donut, captive in a glass domed display. If the numerous fingerprints were to be relied upon, many had tried to free the pastry, all had failed. Eliza paid for her lunch and her coffee and was back on US 50 in less than 30 minutes.

Back on the road, Eliza felt more confident in her plan. She’d heard enough about Circe from Dorothy to create and maintain an image of bucolic harmony, a place where the clocks had extra numerals and the people lacked the need to push one and other. Remembering her recent experience with another dream, the dream of silver screen happiness, Eliza chided herself for being too much a romantic.

She recalled the beginning of the Fall Semester at school, meeting her roommate and deciding that she would help her to not look like she was planning on milking the cows as soon as she found some free time. Eliza Thornberg had spent every school year, since she was 12 years old, in one boarding school or another and was familiar with the stages of homesickness and new-surroundings overload. Dorothy Gale seemed to fit the mold of the newly-on-her-own college coed, a certain politeness, presented like formal attire picked for a special occasion or solemn ceremony. Dorothy deferred to Eliza in choice of beds in the double room, silent acknowledgement of Eliza’s greater experience in dormitory life. In return, Eliza went to a little extra effort to try to ease the other girl’s transition, clearly a difficult one for her. It took a while, longer than normal, for Dorothy to talk about her home. From her own experience, Eliza recognized the nearly inevitable throes of homesickness, the first instinct being to focus on there, rather than on the here. Dorothy Gale was, somehow, different from any other girl who Eliza had made a ‘home-instead-of-home‘ with, there was a subtle confidence underneath the surface shyness. It was when, deciding that the new girl needed a crash course in Life Back East, Eliza gathered a few of her friends and announced to Dorothy that ‘we’re all going downtown’ one Saturday in September that she saw the real Dorothy Gale. Eliza watched as Dorothy stood on the sidewalk of Times Square, as far from the wheat fields of Kansas as a girl could get and still be in North America.  What Eliza saw was not a girl overwhelmed by the sound and the lights and frenetic activity that was Times Square on a Saturday night, reeling from sensory over-load. What she did witness was a girl methodically assessing her surroundings, noting everything, the bustling crowds of loud pedestrians and, oddly she was giving extra attention to the rooftops of the buildings along Broadway and 7th Avenue, as if expecting a threat from above. Eliza thought about the discovery of especially spectacular natural phenomena, such as Victoria Falls, the Grand Canyon, she could imagine a tourist standing speechless, mouth open in wonderment and, at the same time, an experienced guide who would be standing and apprising the area for access points, probable trails into and out of, all in anticipation of danger. Her young roommate from the rural Midwest was very much the experienced explorer of exotic locales. She projected a sense of, not necessarily having been to a place like New York City, but definitely places as strange, if not stranger. It was the confidence of the experienced explorer. Her expression was not of a girl trying to comprehend a very, very different place from what she was familiar with, it was the canny eye of the forward scout on an expedition, noting the landscape, filing away any and all details. She had a self-confidence that Eliza could not recall ever seeing in a girl, at least not one as young as Dorothy Gale. It was clear that, although she felt out-of-place, she’d been in even stranger situations. Eliza liked this girl, with the odd clothes and exotic accent.  While they hit it off immediately, having a roommate and having a friend are two distinct states, one takes politeness and consideration, the other trust and affection. They became friends quicker than Eliza would have thought, and, looking back, it was Dorothy who made the first move from roommates to friends.

After 200 miles of fields of wheat that looked like water and corn that looked like trees, Eliza saw the sign announcing, ‘Circe 50 Miles Ahead’. She began to feel less lethargic, her original excitement began to return. As if on cue, the radio burst out with a fanfare of static, but this time it resolved into music. All rough and irritating at first, the promise of pleasure made her willing to endure the grating on her ears. With a barely noticeable rhythm, the music grew, pleasure overcoming displeasure, still without a distinct presence, but her mind began to participate. The process of adding enjoyment onto the edges of discomfort extended the pleasure, until it sprang suddenly into being, a song. And as quickly as it became a song, it become a recognizable song. Eliza didn’t bother to reflect on her good fortune of living a life that included more variety of everything than most people, especially people in the quiet, brown-on-grey farm towns, like those that passed on the left and the right of the highway,

I went back home, the home was lonesome
Since my mother, she was gone
What a home so sad and alone

Will the circle be unbroken
Bye and bye Lord, bye and bye
There’s a better home awaiting
In the sky Lord, in the sky

The music was compelling and the lyrics sad, yet somehow made Eliza try to sing along. She drove through the center of Circe, her heart gripped tightly by the voice singing of a place so familiar and, at the same time so foreign. Down the quietly-busy Main St and out the far side, along County Road #2, her hands gripping the steering wheel like the back of a pew in church. If you’d pulled her over, as she passed the city limits and asked her to tell you the name of one store, office or municipal building, she would have looked at you with a blank expression and apologized for not noticing. If you were given to paying attention to the human inside of people, you would have noted that the attractive young woman did not seem sorry and yet was very sad, neither of which she would have considered to be any of your business, thank you.

Of course, with the land being of a certain two-dimensional character, Eliza saw the buildings of the Gale Farm well before she saw the sign on the road and quite ahead of the moment that she pulled into the dirt area that separated the two-story house from the red barn, adjacent pens and a small cottage set next to a large apple tree.

Eliza Thornberg sat in the car, as the dust cloud that engulfed since leaving the small town behind, as if to hide the sight of the luxurious automobile, so out of place among the rusted metal sides of farm trucks and the tractors that moved with improbable slowness, despite the huge wheels that supported them over the roadways.

The house appeared empty, the normal subliminal life of a house in use, curtains flapping, distant doors shutting and visceral murmurs of plumbing, were all missing. The house was as silent as a bank vault. Eliza thought about leaving a note, but realized that she had nothing to write with, or for that matter, on,

“May I help you?”

Chapter 14

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“I said, let her go… now.”

With my right arm fully extended, I pointed my revolver at the middle of the red-headed guy’s face. I wanted him to see the dark at the end of the gun’s barrel without having to squint. As I walked towards the counter in the center of the room. I glanced to my left and, what I saw made me hesitate, just a split second.

The girl flying backwards over the far end of the blue sofa as I made my entrance, was Almira Ristani. I knew this, only because she stretched her arms out to either side as she flew backward through the air, and, for a split second, her face was in plain view. There was a look in her eyes I’ll never forget. Framed by a jagged halo of light-brown hair, was the face of pure, animal ferocity. As for the guy who hit her, all I saw was the back of a badly wounded animal, singed by a falling tree in a forest fire. From where I stood, I couldn’t see his face, but I knew beyond certainty, that she was staring directly into his eyes. Strangely enough, I felt pity for him

The red-haired guy, with his hand buried in Annie’s thick brown hair stood, frozen like a hunting dog on point. His face showed the sly intelligence of a weasel. His eyes, unlike the rest of his body, were in constant motion. They showed no fear, just a very rapid re-appraisal of the situation. My appearance obviously changed the balance of power. The math was simple, if nothing else: 2 strong men + 2 battered women versus one loaded gun. Of course, that ‘one loaded gun’ was not more than five feet away and pointed at his face. Despite that, he clearly was not convinced that his options were drastically curtailed from what they were, a mere 10 seconds earlier,

“Sterling….don’t! Not here!

The tone in Annie’s voice added a new element to the red-haired guy’s strategic calculations. That, plus the qualified admonition, not if, but where. Uncertainty that looked like it could grow into fear, passed over his face. A quick decision and he started his retreat, only to find that his fingers were still very entangled in Annie’s hair. He looked at his hand and the hair twisted between his fingers, with an expression bordering on comical surprise. The hair he used to bind the woman to his will, now held him and prevented his retreat. He managed to relax his grip enough to let the hair fall loose and stepped away from behind the counter,

“Look, buddy, we’re only doing a job. You let me and Herschel here leave, and there won’t be no more trouble. Ain’t that right, Herschel?”

The response from the other man was an oddly prissy-sounding,

“oh I’m hurt so bad, Robbie…. I’m hurt so bad…”

Annie stepped around the counter and moved towards the fireplace. Robbie, for his part, continued towards the door, at a speed that might be called a run, except that he didn’t once turn his back on me. Without taking his eyes off my revolver, he veered towards the couch, grabbed Herschel’s arm and pulled him towards the exit. As the large man turned, his overcoat swung free, melted buttons broke apart and damage from the burning was apparent. Fabric and flesh glued together, a smudged landscape of pain. Like a Fourth of July fireworks display, a sudden odor bloomed. The harsh smell of burnt wool, firewood and something else, unidentifiable, yet terrible. Staring down at the front of his ruined coat, Herschel began to brush at the wet-dusty fabric, but his hand froze in mid-motion. He let himself be pulled by the arm, out into the night, for all a child trapped in a burning nightmare. The open door offered the winter wind the opportunity it had waited for, and under its triumphant howl, I heard,

“I’m hurt Robbie… I’m oh god hurt real bad, do something.”

“Shut up, ya galoot… she was just a little girl for christ sakes!  We need to get away from here, right now. your screaming surely will bring the coppers. Don’t know how I’m gonna explain this to that Prendergast fop… this was supposed to be a simple tear and scare”

I felt my anger re-ignite suddenly. Too much happened, too quickly, to let quiet prevail. I needed to do something, anything. Stay and help or run and catch. And when I caught, then I’d be able to forget the look on the girl’s face.

“Those guys! They’re getting away!! I’m gonna make sure they…”

“Never mind them! Almira needs us more than you need to give them a beating, Sterling! Now get over here and help me get her on the couch …Now!”

Putting my revolver back in my inner pocket, I stepped over to where Annie was crouched in front of the fireplace. Almira had landed in the space between the far end of the sofa and the wall. At first, all I could see were brown, laced shoes projecting up and over the arm of the sofa. I stood behind Annie and could see the rest of the girl, leaning halfway up against the wall, her chin against her chest, blood everywhere. I thought, ‘The last time I saw this much human blood was the first time I saw a man die‘, and almost said it out loud. Instead I said,

“OK Annie, I’ll let ’em go…for now. What do you need me to do?”

“Move the couch away…. no! wait! let me support her legs first.”

Luckily I’d resisted my first impulse to just flip the couch end over end, into the open part of the room. Annie looked up at me as, using my right knee and thigh, I slid the couch about 3 feet to the right, smiled,

“Very good! Now that you’ve taken back control of that body of yours, I’m going to need you to lift her from behind her shoulders…”  I was leaning forward from the word, ‘lift’, when she finished her instruction,  “wait! let me finish!”

I smiled at her enough to soften the hardening edges in her face, which was threatening to turn into something stern and demanding. A look like that would not have helped, a lot of my less-inspired decisions were started by someone’s look of stern disapproval. So, I waited and watched, as Annie let go of some of her own adrenaline-sparked stress. She relaxed her furrowing brow and, with obvious effort, offered me a smile, with only a hint of exasperation. I nodded that I was waiting for her to continue,

“Lift her under her arms, but find a way to have your forearms cradle her head. I don’t want her head moving too much when we move her, no telling what condition her neck is in, can you do that?”

She put her forearms under Almira’s ankles.

“On three. One…Two….lift.”

We had her up and, after a second of looking at the sofa, decided that Annie would move first, putting Almira’s feet on the charred end of the sofa. The girl couldn’t have weighed more than 100 pounds, I thought, as I stood holding her upper torso in my hands, fingers interlaced, forearms together formed something of a cradle. Taking her sweater off, Annie folded it into a wedge and tucked it where the seat cushions met the arm rest. I lowered Almira so that she’d be lying at a slant, head elevated but still straight. Annie’s blouse buttons had, apparently pulled free during her struggle earlier, now fell open as she bent to adjust the sweater under Almira’s head. I still had one arm under the girl and was inches from Annie. She noticed my distracted attention, stared at her blouse, looked back at me and laughed,

“Well, at least we know one of us made it through this evening un-scathed! But…” standing straighter, still laughing, her eyes on mine, “But then again, you could’ve accidentally shot yourself in the leg and you’d still be staring at my breasts. Men!”

I laughed, reached over with my free hand and buttoned the middle two buttons, smiling back at her,

“If my lady wishes her knight to rescue her, My Lady shouldn’t make it so hard for her knight to concentrate on her instructions.”

Our laughter, a relief from the accumulated stress, felt good. It stopped when we heard a moan from the couch.

Annie pulled some handkerchiefs from wherever it is women hide them, and, without a word, walked to the bathroom on the far side of the room. I heard water running and she came back to where I was crouching next to the couch, where Almira was bleeding quietly onto her sweater and the cushions of the sofa.

“Get me some ice,”

I vaulted over the sofa and ran out the door. The sidewalk was, as I expected, deserted. What I didn’t expect was how little snow there was on the ground. Of what there was, most was white-glazed between the cobblestones or encrusted in the gutters.

“Hurry the goddamn hell up! I need ice to slow this bleeding down!”

I decided the quickest solution was to run the two blocks down to the River, rather than screw around trying to scrape the frost off the side of the building. My hope for icicles hanging off the roof gutter crapped out, as the cold of the past week was relentless, there hadn’t been any melting in nearly a week. I ran down Bennett St. across Canal St to where the trestle crossed the river. I nearly broke my leg at least twice, scrambling down the embankment, the rough granite was mixed with loose bricks, discarded from the endless construction of the Mills. I managed to kick off a rounded triangle of ice from a frozen wave of river water, trapped on dry land by the extreme cold.

“What took you so…”

Annie looked up as I ran through the door with a 20 lb chunk of ice in my hands. I assumed it was in my hands as, now that I had accomplished my goal, I couldn’t tell what I held in my thoroughly numb hands. Had it not been for the strain on my shoulders, I wouldn’t know I was carrying anything. I walked towards the fireplace.

I saw Annie’s eyes widen before I even bothered to look down,

“Well, that might be enough,”

Annie laughed as she looked around for something to make my chunk of river ice a little more manageable,

“Here, let’s try this,”

I threw the ice against the hearth as hard as I could. Before the smaller pieces stopped skittering across the floor, I picked up a piece, about the size of a decent restaurant’s corn muffin, and, thinking for a second, started to pull off my scarf.

“You do like the straight lines, don’t you, Sterling?”

Annie took the ice from my hands and wrapped it in a clean-looking white cloth. She frowned as she felt it’s hard edges, even through several wraps of the fairly delicate material.

“Here, give me that,”

without waiting for me to respond, she twirled my wool scarf around my head, like un-winding a bobbin on one of the machines in the Mill, and took it from around my neck.

“…er, Annie?…. Brooks Brothers…. less than a year old,”

seeing her look, I decided that it’d be worth the investment of my scarf, if I could stay in her good graces. Since I arrived in Lawrence all of a few weeks ago, Annie LoPizzo remained very much at the top of my ‘to do’ list.

She wrapped the cloth-covered ice in my scarf and smashed it against the stone hearth. Rotating it with each strike, quickly produced an ice pack of manageable size. Annie un-wrapped the ice, draped my scarf over my shoulder and turned back to the girl on the sofa.

“Here, get next to her head, I need to clean up some of this blood and I don’t want her to move too suddenly.”

I looked closely, for the first time since this all started, and had a good look at the girl laying on the couch. It was, I knew, of course, Almira Ristani. But if all I had to go on was a photo of her face at this moment, I’d never have recognized her. Had I held the picture of a stranger being circulated by the police, hoping to identify an accident victim, I might have said,

“Who beat up the old crone? She looks like a house fell on her!”

But it wasn’t an old woman on this second-hand blue sofa decorated with blood and soot, it was a young girl. I realized that, somehow, despite the relatively short amount of time I’d spent with her since arriving in Lawrence, Massachusetts, she’d become important to me.

Lawrence, Massachusetts was just another place to kill some time, after I abruptly left school in New Hampshire. I wasn’t expected back home in Providence for at least a month, which was just as well, as I didn’t think the Dean of Students would be in a hurry to send my parents a letter explaining why he felt it was in the best interest of Dartmouth College that I be expelled. Of course, Dean Hopkins’s wife Christina, really wouldn’t appreciate her dalliance with the student body getting more publicity. So, leaving the dormitory, I decided to do some exploring. I suspected that, as long as Dartmouth kept receiving tuition checks from my folks and I didn’t come back, everyone would be happy. Except, maybe Mrs. Hopkins. At any rate, one cold December morning I stood on the bridge over the Merrimack River that looked, for all the world, like a moat protecting a red-brick castle. From my vantage point overlooking Lawrence, the factory smokestacks were every tower in any illustrated book of fairy tales, the Mills that lined the riverbank, like impregnable brick embattlements, beckoning the knight-errant. I recalled my Medieval History Professor saying, ‘It’s tempting to see the city, hidden behind the castle walls, as a child behind his mother’s skirts, as dependent upon the mighty castle fortress for it’s very existence. Closer, more thoughtful examination shows otherwise, that the outward signs of power were dependent on the existence of the lowly inhabitants. Men, women and children, bound by the clerical and commercial yokes of the powerful, extorted by taxation of what little wealth earned, provided the funds to create the dark edifice. Yet, even more essential, was the near endless labor necessary to create the castle, in the first place.’

The United Worker’s Labor Hall doors were open, in the un-seasonably mild temperatures, as I walked up from Canal Street. I was trying to stretch the 10 dollars I had when I left Hanover, but my hunger grew, I abdicated control and let the aroma of soup draw me through the doors. Annie stood, Persephone in homespun, behind the counter, (her command center, I would later tease her). She looked up at me, smiled and said, “Welcome.!”

 

“OK, here we go,”

Annie wiped Almira’s cheeks of the last lattice stains of blood, now beginning to dry. Dramatic shiny-flowing red turned into rusty-brown trails running from the corner of her eyes, down to her ears.

I sat, half on, half-off the couch, holding Almira’s hands together, at her midriff, when she woke. “She came alive’ ran through my mind, until, that is, I found myself having to restrain 100 pounds of frightened, determined girl. To Annie’s credit, she didn’t recoil, instead moved her arms around to the sides of Almira’s head, stroking her hair gently. For the second time, in what had to be the strangest night of my life, I saw the face of a human, stripped of whatever it is that separates us from the lower orders of animal. Her eyes searched, first for a path of escape and then, accepting her immobility, for a weak point to attack. For all of my 200 pounds, combined with the leverage of a 6′ 2” frame, I had to fight to remain in control of the girl.

Accepting that she could not get up and run, Almira lay back on the couch and looked up at me.

“Oh, good! You’re awake!” with the delighted surprise of a host seeing a houseguest coming early to breakfast, Annie’s voice was immediately drowned out by laughter. Even Almira, now recognizing us, tried, unsuccessfully, to join in.

Annie got up and quickly returned with a small pan of warm water and two clean cloths. Kneeling at the end of the sofa, she completed her cleanup of the blood on Almira’s face.

“Dank yu” Almira frowned at the sound of her blunted fricative.

“How bah…how bahhd! is it? I canth breath tru my node”

I looked at Annie for a sign of how to react, but she was looking at Almira’s face with an expression that hinted at fear, as if she was trying to convince herself that the damage was not as bad as it looked, and failing. Almira’s face looked pretty damn bad, her formally aquiline nose now had more in common with a roseate Spoonbill than the sharp-eyed eagle. Her nose, spectacularly broken, lay to the right side of her face, fortunately there was little in the way of cut or torn flesh. Her eyes were nearly swollen shut, and yet there was a sharpness and a focus to them that was not a little un-settling.

“Well, it looks…” Annie started to say, in what she clearly hoped was a confident and re-assuring tone, faltered when she looked at the wreckage of the girl’s face.

“You’ve suffered a severely deviated septum but apparently avoided any other significant maxillofacial trauma. I suspect that all…”

I stopped, Annie and Almira stared at me with a look of amazement and a touch of cautious hope.

“What?  I’m the only one here who took a couple of  pre-med courses? …well, ok, maybe I am, but surely one of the two of you have lost a bar fight and had… well, alright, alright. So you haven’t and I have and had my nose broken… maybe a couple of times,”

I stopped when I saw the look in Annie’s eyes begin to incite a grin from the girl lying on the couch between us. For an evening that had such a violent start, the three of us spent more time laughing than I would’ve believed if I wasn’t a party to it all.

“So, what do we do?” Annie looked at me, and Almira, with a very slight and careful inclining of her head, nodded in agreement.

“Gotta set your nose. Put it back in the position God meant it to be and let nature take it’s course. Had it done 4, 5 times. You’ll get your breathing back, the swelling and the black-eyes, those’ll heal on their own.”

The way I explained it sounded reasonable, and they both appeared to accept what I was telling them with complete trust and confidence. As a matter of fact, I did know what to do for a broken nose, but that wasn’t the same as doing it to a 16-year-old girl. I didn’t think it would help to tell them that it was no big deal, provided the patient was drunk as a lord and had two cops kneeling on his chest.

“So do it,” Annie looked to Almira, who squeezed her fingers and gave us the ‘don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it’ nod.

“Wait!  Wait, lets not be too hasty. I know! why don’t we take Almira to the hospital instead.”

“nuh… nah kno!”  Almira forced through her swelling lips.  Although Annie seemed uncertain, she looked over at me and said, “tell us first, just what you’re going to do.”

Seeing that both women were determined to go through with my offer of first aid, I slid over on the couch, forcing Almira to bend her knees a bit, without any pain or distress that I could see, which put me at about her waist level. I had my left forearm resting on the back of the couch and my right hand on the girl’s forearm.

“Alright, you want to know what I’m going to do? You’re already lying down, that’s good, cause it’s easier that way. I’ll tell you to relax, and you’ll try, but won’t be able to. Then, as gently as possibly, I’m going to grab your nose with two fingers and jerk it to the side and slightly downward. It will hurt. But, almost right away, you’ll feel things open and you’ll forget the pain and you’ll start to think that everything’s going to be alright. And it will.”

Annie’s face took on an expression so intriguing that I almost stopped my description of how I planned to set Almira’s nose. It was a look of poignant excitement, it was also a look that said, ‘If you dare, ask me, but be prepared to be taken to some very surprising places.’

“Are you still willing?”

Again the silent assent, with no fear but something else seemed to grow in her eyes, a look of anticipation and even, excitement. I saw that Almira’s eyes were emerald-green, somehow, both dark and full of light. I shook my head, that I could have missed such incredibly attractive eyes as those of Almira’s, made me wonder how I managed to get through life this long without walking off a cliff or going blind from staring at the morning sun.

I leaned forward, looked over at Annie and reached with my left arm across and over Almira’s face, as if inviting Annie to hand me one of the cloths she had in her lap. Almira’s eyes followed the motion of my hand and watched as Annie put a folded white cloth in my left hand. With my right hand, I reached under my left arm and pulled Almira’s nose straight and slightly downward.

Almira’s eyes widened in shock and she started to gasp but, almost immediately, felt the normal flow of air in her nose. The relief of being able to breathe almost normally, stifled any cry of pain, prompted by my surprise rhinoplasty.

Annie looked at me with almost as much surprise as Almira. But with that odd expression of reminiscence, which seemed to flare up in her eyes. A brief flash of anger, like distant cloud blocked lightening, took hold of her but as quickly disappeared, a wistful sadness left in it’s place.

“Son of a Bitch!” Annie half-cursed and half-laughed in surprise.

 

“Saints preserve us! What kind of deviltry’s has been going on in here!”

From the door came a loud exclamation that, like a vicious dog on a leash, wanted to turn into accusation. The beat cop, Sargent Herlihy, stood just inside the hall and stared at the three of us, on the slightly charred, very blood stained second-hand sofa, …laughing.

“Enough with you laughing! I’m out on as Christ-cold a night as I can remember, because my captain insisted, which can only mean that someone told him to get down to the Union Hall. Someone better start explaining things. And a bonny-good tale it needs to be, judging from the looks of this place!”