A Walk in the Park

I knew what I was looking at, but staring down the barrel of the thug’s M1911 still gave me pause. I’d used them often enough back when I was still in the Rangers, but I’d always been on the other end of the gun, not looking down that tunnel-like opening.

“Are you deaf, old man? I said give me your damned wallet.”

Loud and to the point. Not a man who was going to walk away without something to show for his efforts. “Oh, I heard you. I was just wondering if you really want to do this.”

A crooked-tooth smile appeared on the bearded face. “What? Am I supposed to be worried about an old fart like you? Seriously? Old man, you should shut up, because if you keep talking, I’m gonna be real tempted to just shoot you so I don’t have to listen to you anymore. I can do that and take your wallet without having to put up with your crap.”

I did my best to not give in to my impulse to kill him. He’d moved closer, no doubt thinking having the gun nearly against my head would intimidate me. This close, I could flip the safety on and take the automatic away from him before he knew I was attacking him. I just didn’t need the hassle. “Oh, I don’t expect you to be intimidated by me. You’re right, I’m just an old man, so you’ve got nothing to worry about. No, you should be worried about my coworkers.” I grinned, letting the thug see how laughable I found him. “You see, I train covert operatives for the CIA, and something tells me none of them are going to be terribly pleased if you rob me.”

The thug’s smile slipped a little, then his eyes hardened. “Yeah, sure. Like some CIA spook is going to take a walk in a park after dark.”

I couldn’t help it, I started laughing. “When else could I take a walk? What better time to come out here and get away from everything I have to put up with?” I fixed him with my eyes. “Let me explain things to you. Right now, you have two choices. Option 1 is you walk away, and maybe my colleagues won’t visit hell upon you. Or, you can pick Option 2 and shoot me before robbing my body and running away. I’ve got something like twenty-three dollars in cash, but no credit or ATM card. How far do you think that will get you? Hell, I could have twenty three million dollars on me, and it wouldn’t be enough. You shoot me, and there’s not enough money in the world to buy you a hole to hide in where my friends won’t be able to find you.” I leaned forward, letting the cold steel of the gun press against my forehead to give him an idea of how little he intimidated me. “And when they do find you, you can be sure they will take the time to make you beg for death before they kill you.”

The smile had disappeared from the thug’s face as I’d spoken. His eyes darting around like he expected someone to appear out of the shadows, but he made one final, half-assed attempt at bravado. “You’re shitting me! You’re just trying to talk your way out of this.”

I spread my arms. “If you really believe that, then go ahead and shoot me. God knows how many people I’ve killed, or how many have died because of my actions. Who knows, maybe you killing me would be God’s way of balancing the scales.” I let my arms drop. “But if you shoot me, don’t expect God to protect you from what will happen next. Hell will come for you if you do. Know that. Believe that. Know it in your heart. Kill me, and you sign your own death warrant.”

The muzzle had begun to shake when I’d started speaking. As I said the last words, the thug dropped his arm. He was no longer a threat. I walked past him, and as I came even with him, I whispered. “You can run now.”

A half dozen more steps, and the .45 barked once. I didn’t have to look. At this range, he couldn’t have missed me unless he was legally blind. I pull out my phone and tap the emergency call button.

“Alexandria 911, please state the nature of your emergency.”

“Yes, I’d like to report a suicide. I was out for a walk on the Meridian Park walking path when I heard a gunshot. I found a dead man with a gun in his hand about halfway from the Sixth Street entrance. I’ll wait here with my phone on until your officers to arrive.”

No need to call the agency. The local police could deal with the trash who lay behind me, and the asphalt walking path would retain no telltale marks to contradict my story. Would they test the gun to find the trace DNA from when I’d pressed my head against it? I looked back. The thug had stuck the gun in his mouth before pulling the trigger, so even if they did look, his DNA would overwhelm any sample that might have been picked up from me.

“So nothing to do now but wait.”

More Okatu with more anime

I thought, what with all the negative ongoing in the world, now would be a good time to add to my ”Occasional Okatu” series. Two of the following anime have just recently finished, one is still ongoing, and the fourth is kind of a two-for-one special case. So here goes.

Reading the title of the first one, “Rent-A-Girlfriend” (“Kanojo, Okarishimasu”), you might be tempted to think one thing, but in this case, the truth is completely different. Evidently in Japan, it’s not uncommon for people to ‘rent’ an individual to go to a social event with them, even ones that involve their families. In Kazuya Kinoshita’s case, a heartbroken college student who’s just been dumped by his first girlfriend. When he sees an ad for an agency offering rental girlfriends, he decides to try one as a way to take his mind off his break-up. The girl who shows up is a stunning young woman called Chizuru Mizuhara, and she makes one thing clear from the start: if he was hoping for anything beyond company, he’s out of luck. The date doesn’t come close to what Kazuya had hoped for, leading him to write a bad review of Chizuru, the first one she’s ever gotten.

As you can imagine, she is not happy, but things are about to take a turn into the strange for this unlikely pair. Kazuya’s grandmother is hospitalized, and when he goes to visit her, he discovers two things: she’s not terribly sick, and she has another woman sharing her room with her, who happens to be Chizuru’s grandmother. Unable to conceal their reactions upon seeing each other, the two begin spinning a series of lies about how they know each other. Things spiral further and further out of hand from there.

You could consider this a comedic take on the ‘star-crossed lovers’ stories, and by the time it reaches the ending (which was just telecast), the story has gone in a direction you would never expect at the beginning. I liked it, and I hope you will too. It’s available on Crunchyroll at: https://www.crunchyroll.com/rent-a-girlfriend

The “Sword Art Online” anime franchise has it’s fans who love it, and an equal number of people who can’t stand it. I happen to be in the former camp, and the “Alicization” story arc, which started with “Sword Art Online: Alicization” and recently finished with “Sword Art Online: Alicization – War of Underworld” was quite enjoyable. Kirito, the hero of the entire story line, nearly dies in real life at the start of the first half of the current anime. He is saved, but to do this, he is placed in a medical device known as a “soul translator”. If that wounds ominous,, it should. His conscious enters a new virtual world, one run by a government research organization with the aim of developing a true universal artificial intelligence. In this virtual world, the non-human characters have all the aspects of real humans, including free will. Kirito must not only navigate this new and far more complex reality, he must also save a particular artificial intelligence so it can be moved outside the virtual world.

Kirito does his best, and nearly succeeds, but fails. That’s how the first part of the arc ends. The second half opens with him trapped in the game, reduced to a near-vegetative state, in the care of the artificial intelligence he had meant to free from the game. Things are going badly for the artificial intelligences in the game, and Kirito’s only hope of escape rest in the hands of his fiance and former in-game partner Asuna.

I won’t ruin the ending, but I will say that she rides to the rescue, and the ending closes the arc out well. You can find the entire Alicization” arc on Hulu at: https://www.hulu.com/series/sword-art-online-alicization-c22224e3-93c0-40ab-895d-1475d94a6688

I mentioned a series that is still ongoing, and that is “Appare-Ranman!”. A brilliant Japanese mechanical engineer from the Meji era and a samurai tasked with guarding him end up in America by accident. They’re both penniless, but the engineer find a way they might be able to get home: a cross-country race from San Diego to New York. He resolves to put his engineering talent to use and enters a vehicle in the race, with his bodyguard as his reluctant sidekick/crew.

I can’t tell much about what happens without spoiling the show, so I’ll move to my conclusion. On it’s surface, the anime is made up of one ridiculous bit of suspension-of-disbelief on top of another. But the story it tells, of striving to win no matter how long the odds, is worth keeping in mind. That, and many of the gags in the story are funnier than all get out. This one is also available on Hulu at: https://www.hulu.com/series/appare-ranman-2d84b975-ecb1-41e4-8bef-5edc003ea2b8

Late last year, “Violet Evergarden I: Eternity and the Auto Memory Doll” came out, and if you haven’t seen it yet, do. It’s just as visually stunning as the original anime was, and the story it tells will tug at you with the same force Violet’s original story did. The final piece of the “Violet Evergarden” story was released on Sept 16, “Violet Evergarden: The Movie”. Unfortunately, it’s currently only out in movie theaters in Japan, and no streaming release date has been announced. That said, the new entrant into the story made more money in it’s first three days in the theaters than “Violet Evergarden I: Eternity and the Auto Memory Doll” did. All the reviews I have seen agree it is another amazing piece of animation, and that it continues the heart-wringing story telling that has been the hallmark of the franchise. Netflix has both the original anime series and “Eternity and the Auto Memory Doll”, so I would hope it will be the outlet where the new movie becomes available to those of us who aren’t in Japan. “Violet Evergarden I: Eternity and the Auto Memory Doll” is available at: https://www.netflix.com/title/81208936/

That’s it for now, and I hope you find these anime as enjoyable as I did.

The Wheel of Fate

They came from the dark beyond.

No one expected them, there was no sign that they existed.

Then, one day, observatories began reporting a sudden flare of light in the sky. And it wasn’t a nova, or even a one of the rarer supernovas. No, this light, while intense, had none of the energy signatures of those massive explosive events.

But what was more worrying was the fact that it was moving. The light, when broken down by spectrometers, was discovered to have the characteristics of a fusion reaction. It also demonstrated the blue-shifted characteristics of an object travelling at near light speed, and headed towards the observers. In short, it was headed towards the Earth.

Scientists around the world were thrilled. Finally humanity had discovered proof of an alien civilization, and they were coming to visit us.

A week after the first light appeared, a second one bloomed in the sky. A week after that, a third. Then a fourth. A fifth.

When the last appeared, and people realized that eight blazing torches of fusion fire were headed towards the Earth, even the most optimistic scientist began to have doubts. To send one ship on a voyage of exploration, they reasoned, would be a minimum. Two would double the chances of the mission succeeding. But eight? No one could imagine any scenario beyond invasion for such a massive group of ships.

But what could humanity do? The closest we had come to harnessing the power of our Sun were hydrogen bombs, crude engines of mass destruction next to these controlled uses of that vast power. And as the objects drew closer, the scale of what was coming became clear to humanity. Their size became clear in the reflected light of their engines. The objects were all cylinders, each spanning tens of kilometers, and stretched for ten times that length. Any one of them had enough interior space to hold a dozen of Earth’s biggest cities. Taht’s when the futility of humanity’s situation began to sink in. Even if Earth were to unite and attack the visitors with it’s massed armory of nuclear weapons, together they might be enough to destroy one of the objects.

But humanity’s governments didn’t unite, they broke into two camps.

One group, seeing the size and power of the alien ships approaching us, thought our best path was to seek to find a way to live with the aliens. In their minds, we might over time learn the secrets of this advanced species, perhaps even earning ourselves a place among the stars.

The other group argued that there was no path forward but resistance. We must strike as soon as the first of the craft approached close enough for our rockets to reach it. We must show the aliens that we would not be conquered without a fight, that we would resist even if the odds were hopeless.

And the average human? Most of them doubted that the aliens even existed. After all, they reasoned, why would aliens come to such a small and unimportant world as ours? No, there were no alien ships approaching. It was a hoax, a fraud meant to scare average people into giving governments more money, more power, more obedience. The governments wanted to take our freedoms, or limit them, or limit them even more than they already did. There was no need to act against what many of them called the ‘fake threat’. And so they went about their daily lives in the surety that nothing bad would happen to them.

The first object swung down, slipping into our solar system, slowing down by using the Sun’s gravity to pull them closer while stealing their momentum. A final burst of intense light from it’s engines, visible to the naked eye anywhere outside of a city, and their engines ceased to fire. They didn’t need them, at least not the massive amounts of power they’d expended to slow themselves down in order to be captured by the Sun’s gravity. Only twice more did the lead ship fire it’s giant engine, and by tracking those, and by watching the gigantic objects via radar, their destination became clear: Earth.

The other objects followed behind it, mimicking it’s flight path, but no one really paid attention. Now, even the most confirmed doubters had trouble disbelieving the threat. The object came into orbit around the Earth, closer than the Moon and bright enough to be seen on a clear night anywhere on the surface.

Earth’s governments faced the greatest crisis of their existence. The mass of humanity could no longer ignore the threat hanging over it’s head. And in that moment, panic ensued. People who had scoffed at the idea of aliens visiting the Earth now demanded that Something Be Done. Those governments that thought peaceful coexistence could be achieved broadcast greetings on every frequency that could penetrate the Earth’s atmosphere. They beamed strings of numbers up. Mathematical formulas. Images of humans.

And in response? Nothing.

The second object dropped into orbit around the Earth and remained as uncommunicative as the first. Every week, another one of the giant ships took up orbit around the Earth. And in the silence, that lack of communications, fear grew beyond control. When the sixth ship took up orbit, the nations that had called for action broached their plan: they would mass their weapons, attack, destroy one of the giant ships. Even if humanity couldn’t drive the invaders away, we would make it clear to the aliens that we were not to be taken lightly. The governments that hoped for peace spoke out against the plan. They were overruled, or overthrown, by their frightened citizens.

But which of the ships should they attack? Many argued for attacking the first ship. Others spoke of destroying the next ship as it moved into orbit, to accomplish a show of our strength by wiping out one of their great machines as it came into range. In the end, those who called out for the first ship to be destroyed carried the day. Using secure links, the plan was laid. The time was set, a moment in its orbit when the majority of the Earth’s nuclear arsenal would be in range of the first ship.

The time approached, came, and across the world, the orders were given. Buttons were pushed, keys turned, and from submarines and missile silos around the world, humanity’s mightiest weapons were launched against the invaders.

People stood in public squares, watching great projections of the attack as it took place. They cheered as images of missiles arching through the sky appeared. They slapped each other on the back, sure that the aliens would soon feel the wrath of humanity. Telescopes, and even ordinary TV cameras with long lenses, focused on the targeted ship, waiting for nuclear fire to bloom around and on it.

But none did.

Earth’s most fearsome weapons just disappeared. Scattered radar tracking reports came through of the fleet of missiles rising about the Earth’s atmosphere, only to vanish without a trace. What unimaginable power had caused this to happen, no one could guess. Another salvo was fired, a last reserve that had been kept in case it were needed to defend each nation against it’s supposed allies. It too vanished from the skies. And when the last rocket disappeared, the invaders showed no more sign of interest in humanity than they had at the beginning.

If fear had been growing before the attack, now it exploded across the Earth’s surface. People fled cities hoping to hide in the countryside. Others flocked to self-appointed prophets who claimed to know what the invaders truly sought. In some places, mass suicides became a daily event. And through all of it, the fear continued to grow. And it turned out, the fear was justified.

In a single night, every major city on the Earth disappeared. There were no explosions, no flashes of hellfire light. The cities just ceased to exist. There were no ruins. No smashed infrastructure. Bodies were left piled high. Everything in the cities just disappeared, leaving nothing but vast expanses of bare dirt to witness the fact that something had once been there.

Was this how humanity’s mightiest weapons had been defeated? Had they too simply ceased to exist? No one had time to venture a guess, because the next night, more cities vanished. Like the first time, nothing was left but bare dirt. No one saw anything. The cities, with everything and everyone in them, were just gone.

To say that panic ensued would be an understatement. Those who had lived in cities that hadn’t disappeared fled, seeking ever smaller cities, villages, any place they could hide from the anonymous terror that had claimed so many. But modern civilization had made even these small concentrations of humanity dependent on the wider world. Without power, food, fuel or any of the other things that had become modern necessities that came to them from the outside world, even the smallest and most remote villages descended into chaos.

So people who could fled further, into the most remote parts of the Earth. They found them inhabited by those they would once have thought of as primitives, uncivilized people who knew nothing of humanity’s great achievements. Now, they pleaded for shelter from the people they once scorned. They told them of the terrors they had seen. Of the unknown conquerors who could not be resisted, creatures who swept aside any effort made to resist them.

The primitive people listened to the stories, nodding their heads as they did. And when these tales were told, they told their own stories. How they had once owned the land. How their people had flourished, and how their ancestors had built great places. They told of their memories of unknown invaders who had come to their lands. How no matter what their ancestors had done, they could not resist. How their society had been destroyed, their great places laid low, and how the scattered remains had been driven to places like this.

And before sending the new refugees on their way, they reminded them that it had been their ancestors that had done this, and that was why they had no place among the survivors of that long-ago horror. As those survivors had, they could find their own place to survive. Or they could die, as far too many of their ancestors had. It made no difference to them, but leave they would, whether they wanted to or not.

“Righteous Might”, a review

“Righteous Might”

by Keith Conrad.

Publisher: Eckhartz Press

Available in both conventional and electronic format. ~81K words, 260 pages (epub format)

Release date: June 22, 2020

So, have you ever had one of those ideas that, when you looked back at it, you wish you’d kept to yourself? If you have, then you probably have a good idea how Rebecca Lasky feels as the events in “Righteous Might“ unfold.

Rebecca is one of the main character among an ensemble of characters the reader meets as the story progresses. In her case, the idea she has is for a way to make an object the size of an aircraft carrier invisible to radar. The fact that she works for DARPA, the Defense Department’s in-house research arm, means she’s in a position to try her idea out in real life.

That’s how Rebecca, her boss, and a team of technicians end up on the Gerald R. Ford as it and it’s battle group steam out of Pearl Harbor. The equipment that she hopes will make her idea a reality has been installed on the Ford, but her task has expanded: it is now hoped that her experiment can hide the entire battle group from radar.

As far as the crew of the Ford are concerned, the test is nothing but an annoyance. They’re on their way to the continental US and their home port after a long deployment, and all the tests are little more than a delay to them. What none of them know is that their delay is going to be much longer than they thought.

The experiment works, but as the equipment is being shut down, things go terribly wrong. Everyone is rendered unconscious, but once they wake up, they find things have gotten much stranger. None of their satellite-based systems, from GPS to communications, is working. Even their normal communications channels are silent. It’s only when they dispatch a reconnaissance flight to Pearl that the magnitude of how much trouble they’re in becomes clear: Battleship Row is no longer an empty memorial, it’s filled with the ships that will be sunk on December 7, 1941.

“Righteous Might” delves into one of the most fundamental problems such a situation would present to ti’s protagonists: what do you do when you can literally rewrite the future you know? Do you try to change history, or do you stand back and let the timeline develop as you remember it? Keith Conrad spins a good yarn, examining that problem through the eyes of his characters. He makes his main characters come alive, and it’s a story that’s easy to get lost in.

Does that mean the story is without fault? No. Maybe you have to be an aviation nerd like me to know (or even care) about the fact that no American fighter has been armed with machine guns since the F-86’s built in the early 1950’s. Yet Keith Conrad repeatedly speaks of the ultra-modern F-35’s that make up the majority of the Ford’s air wing firing their machine guns. There are a few other, minor points that niggle at the writer in me, but in the end, the story has enough drive to carry it through those problems.

Brother Coward

The kingdom of Restoz had died three days ago.

Baird knew it was dead. After all, he’d watched it die.

Father had sent him to the top of Immus Hill to watch for the promised reinforcements from Prince Plostiv. He’d told Baird it was because he knew that of his three sons, he was the fastest rider. Even as he’d ridden old Fastten up the hillside, Baird had known that wasn’t the reason he’d been sent.

No, he’d been sent because his father knew that, in his heart, Baird was a coward. He was the smallest and youngest of the sons of King Trenust, and as a boy of fifteen Summers who hated swords and fighting in general, his father had known Baird would only be underfoot if he stayed with the rest of the army. Better by far to have him out of the way than take a man from the line to protect him from harm.

But Prince Plostiv had never come. Instead, pouring down the road from Ulteme, came the massed hordes of that dark kingdom. They came not in tens, or hundreds, or even thousands. No, they came like a swarm of ants, a seemingly endless stream of men who refused to line up and face Restoz’s meager army. No, the stream swept around the line, either turning its end inwards, or overwhelming those on the exposed flank. It made no difference what the men of Restoz did. Because just like ants, the black-clad footmen of Ulteme swirled around Restoz’s army, encircling it before closing in and destroying it not by tactics, but sheer weight of numbers.

And Baird had stood atop the hill, watching it happen, too afraid to ride down and die fighting with his family and countrymen. It was only when the last spot of color had vanished, when his father’s broad blue and red banner had fallen, that Baird had been able to move.

And what had he done?

He’d climbed atop Fastten and spurred the loyal old horse down the slope towards the empty plains of Yestra and away from the massacre as fast as his mount would run.

He’d ridden until Fastten had stopped running, then flogged the horse back into a laboring gallop that had carried him only a few more leagues. Then, like every muscle in his body had failed, Fastten had dropped, sending Baird sprawling.

Not even checking whether his mount had died or was simply incapacitated, Baird had collected his saddle bags and water skin and set off as fast as he could walk into the empty wastes of the Yestra. He walked on, hoping the army of Ulteme feared the Yestra for the same reasons all the other nations feared it, the stories of the Wandering Giant.

That first day, the sky had been clear. But clouds had gathered as he slept in the lee of a boulder, and those clouds had delivered a steady rain not long after Baird had started walking again. There was no place to shelter from it in this unpopulated place, so Baird had walked steadily onwards, pushing to put as much distance between himself and that relentless army as he could.

The rain ceased before the Sun set, but the clouds remained. And in the place of rain, they delivered a wind that passed through Baird’s soaked cloak like he wasn’t wearing it. But he kept going. Baird walked until the light faded, until he could barely see his own feet, before throwing himself down on a small knoll.

Sleep came, but in sleep, he saw the final moments of his father. His imagination, always vivid, filled in how that bloody final stand ended. His father would not have surrendered, nor would his older brothers. Like he were there, Baird saw them standing together, along with his father’s personal guards, as Ulteme’s swarming masses charged in for the kill. And in the final moment, as dozens of spears stabbed him, Baird saw his father turn towards him. He heard him speak, his familiar voice not scolding Baird, but accusing him. “Why have you deserted me, my son?”

He saw his father fall, his banner clutched in his hand, and as they struck the ground, Baird awoke. For a long moment, he stared around him in the predawn darkness, confusion and fear causing his heart to pound and his breath to come in quick gasps. There was nothing to see. Baird, and the knoll he sat on, were shrouded in a fog so thick he was not sure he would see his hand at the end of his arm if he raised it. Then, he heard and felt something: a deep, tremendous boom, so powerful the ground itself shook. A moment later, he felt and heard the same terrible sound.

Baird stood. Whatever it was that caused a sound so mighty could not be good. But which direction had it come from? He had no clue, and in a fog this thick, if he tried to run, he could just as easily run into …whatever it was, as he might run away from it. Baird drew his sword, knowing it was a sick joke that he could defend himself with it, and waited. The sound and ground shaking happened another time, perhaps even louder and more violent. Then, nothing.

In the stillness that followed, a breeze began to blow. It carried a scent Baird could not describe, like the filthiest outhouse he’d ever had to use combined with a rank animal smell that made him gag. And though it was no warmer than the bone-chilling wind of the day before, Baird shivered not from the chill it induced, but out of abject terror. He became aware of a noise that made no sense. It was like the sound of the sail on one of the trading barges that plied the River Dostag, but there were no rivers here.

The darkness began to fade as, somewhere above his shoulder, the Sun began to rise. The breeze grew with the Sun’s rising, and together, they caused the fog to begin to clear. And what he saw before him made Baird piss himself.

The stories were true. Baird hadn’t believed them, but what sane man would? The Wandering Giant, the last king of that ancient and now vanished race, stood before him leaning on his massive sword. Baird stood, frozen with fear, as the silent encounter stretch on. Then the immense form leaned towards him, one hand stretching towards him darken the ground beneath it like a thunderstorm.

Then, as silently as the movement started, it stopped. The rising wind caught the giant’s robe, and the cause of the strange flapping noise became clear. Then, from beneath the ragged hood of it’s mantle, a voice echoed. Baird would have expected a voice from such a great thing to be deep, booming like the reverberating thunder stroke. Instead, it was high-pitched, like a mighty wind whipping through tree branches. “So, human, have you come to slay me, as your kind slew my kin?”

It was too absurd to be believed. This huge creature was asking Baird if he had come to kill him? Baird, the boy who was amazed he hadn’t shit himself to compound the shame of pissing himself, would have thrown down his sword and run if he thought he could escape by doing so. He could no more kill the giant than he could bring his father and brothers back to life. Remembering how he’d run from death, how he’d abandoned everything he’d ever known, Baird found a small spark of courage. He couldn’t kill this thing, and knew he couldn’t escape it. Sheathing his sword, he spread his arms.

“No, oh Wandering Giant, I haven’t come here to kill you. I came here because I ran from a fight. I ran and left my family to die. I left any honor I might have had and fled because I’m a coward! You have nothing to fear from me.” Baird closed his eyes, admitting to one final shame, that he wasn’t able to look Death in the eyes when he came for him. “But I will not run anymore. If you fear me, kill me. It’s what I deserve for running away. It’s what I deserve for deserting my father and brothers. So go ahead, sweep me from existence as I would an errant ant.”

In that moment, and for the first time, Baird felt free. He’d never been able to admit his fear to his father or brothers. They would never have been able to accept it. But now he’d admitted it aloud, and in doing so, lifted a weight that had hung from his soul his whole life. In that moment, Baird felt free, happier than he’d ever been in his whole life. He let himself smile as he waited for death to come, ready to accept his end.

But nothing happened. The moment stretch on and on, and as it did, the euphoria Baird had felt began to slip away. Fear, then anger, rose in him. Was the giant toying with him?

Baird let his eyes open. The giant stood before him, but now he stood with his back straight, staring into the swirling fog. Then that strange voice spoke again.

“King? I was no king. I was the less than the least foot soldier in our army. When your hordes attacked us, when they poured into our lands, I did not stand with my kin. Like you, I ran. I have run and hid from your kind for all the long years since your kind overwhelmed us.” Now, from within the vast hood, came a sound Baird would never have expected: a wheezing chuckle. “So, human, it appears you and I are two of a kind. Both of us are cowards. So it will be, you will not kill me, and I will not kill you. Do we agree, human?”

Of all the violent, gory outcomes Baird had imagined since the moment he’d known the giant stood before him, this had not been one of them. But he would live through this day, and more important, he knew being a coward wasn’t something confined to himself. Bowing low to the giant, he offered his reply. “Yes, I agree. So, my fellow coward, what say you? Would you be willing to sit awhile with me while we tell each other our stories?”

Another chuckle answered him, and the giant slowly folded himself. “Aye, Brother Coward, I can think of no better way to spend such a dreary morning.”

A Review of “Johnny Lycan and the Anubis Disk”, by Wayne Turmel

So, how does an honest werewolf make a living in Chicago?

That’s just one of many questions Johnny Lycan would love to know the answer to.

Back when he was younger, being a leg-breaker and general hired muscle for the neighborhood bookie cum loan shark brought in a decent living. But Johnny soon found that the more he let his special talent for violence loose, the harder it was to get it back under control. His problem is that no matter what job he has, his violent nature has a way of asserting itself and causing him problems.

As “Johnny Lycan and the Anubis Disk” opens, Johnny is back in his old Chicago neighborhood and has managed to get something like a normal life going. Unfortunately, his former boss needs some help, and he isn’t the type of man to take no for an answer.

Johnny does the job, retrieving his former boss’ daughter from a group of rival mobsters who want to use her as leverage over her father. It’s when he goes to collect his payment for the job that he find his past has come back to bite him in the ass. Someone even more powerful than his local mobster has taken an interest in him, and like the bookie, he isn’t someone who’s going to take no for an answer.

What follows is a story that keeps the reader turning the electronic pages. Johnny soon finds out that all the weirdness he’s had in his life so far is nothing compared to the truly strange world he’s entered. From murderous relics to magic he’s been living in the presence of his whole life, Johnny has fallen down the rabbit hole, only to find it’s really his everyday life.

Wayne Turmel has written some outstanding historical fiction. His Lucca le Pou stories are works that take the reader into the world of the late Crusade era. They’re populating it with characters that live both on the page and in your mind. “Johnny Lycan and the Anubis Disk” is filled with a cast of characters you might run into any day of the week in Chicago. And just as his earlier works did, this latest novel drags you into the life of it’s main character. You see through Johnny’s eyes his battle to contain his nature, all while trying to find something normal to hang onto in an increasingly strange world. It’s a story that keeps you reading, turning the pages to find out what comes next.

I suspect that what comes after this novel will be another one featuring Johnny, or at least I hope one is in the works. Johnny is a character you want to root for, one you can see something of yourself in, even if you’re not a werewolf. He has to make decisions that aren’t always clear-cut, or morally unambiguous, but in making those decisions, he tries his best to do what he hopes is the right thing. That the result isn’t always perfect is a good reminder that life isn’t always about making perfect decisions, something we’d all do well to remember. I’m glad I read “Johnny Lycan and the Anubis Disk”, and I think if you do, you’ll be glad you read it too.

The Strike

(A bit of wishful ‘alternate history’. If you’re bothered by politically-flavored stories, you might not want to read this.)

“It’s looking like another long, joyous press conference.”

Paul had muttered the comment, but the rye snort from Larry Upton told him he hadn’t been as quiet as he’d planned. Larry was a good guy, one of those journalists who’d come into the profession sideways. He’d been a defensive lineman at Nebraska, and the only thing that kept him from having a sure slot in the NFL had been a compound fracture suffered in a pile-up during the Rose Bowl. He was still had the huge presence of a man who could push his way through any crowd, but nobody doubted the intelligence of the man who’d won multiple awards for investigative journalism for the San Francisco “Chronicle”. In the socially-distanced seated bullpen of White House press room, he was the closes person to Paul. The other correspondents and TV reporters of the press corp sat scattered among the seats, all waiting their turn to ask a question. But if they were anything like Paul, their only question was how long the president was going to ramble on.

He’d been asked a fairly simple question about a piece of legislation that had been proposed in the House. Unfortunately for everyone in the room, he’d taken this as a chance to launch into another of his stock self-congratulatory monologues. And just like past such responses, when he finished, he’d done nothing to answer the original question. Paul, along with every other journalist in the room, raised their hands in hopes of being called upon. Instead, the president called on one of his favorite hacks.

He got what he wanted. After spending almost a minute of praising the president for how great a job he was doing handling the pandemic, the apologist threw the president a softball question asking what he thought of the other party’s efforts to address it.

As the president launched into what would no doubt be a long diatribe about the failings of the opposition, Paul’s phone buzzed. He had it set to screen all calls directly to voice mail, but the few people who knew his email address could reach him via that route. With nothing else to do but wait, Paul opened the message. It was from his father, which was odd by itself. Then, Paul read the text of that short message. As he often did when he was disturbed or angry, his father had slipped into the Spanish of his native El Salvado.

“Tu madre esta muerta.”

It had to be a mistake. Sure, Mom was 64, but she’d always been in good shape from running all her life. Hell, not five years ago, she’d lived out one of her ‘bucket list’ fantasies and taken part in the Boston Marathon. Dad had called him, five days ago, to tell him his mother wasn’t feeling well and had been admitted to the hospital, but there’d been nothing in his voice or words to indicate that he thought her illness was serious. The follow-on call that she’d been diagnosed with the virus had caused Paul’s anxiety to increase, but he’d been sure his mother would shake it off. And now she was dead.

Up at the podium, the president was rambling through a list of what he thought were the failings of his opponent’s efforts to deal with the virus. This man had been warned. He’d been questioned about why he was taking such a long time doing anything. About why he kept insisting that a pandemic would somehow magically ‘go away’. And now he stood in front of Paul and all the other journalists, trying to blame it all on his opposition. Burying his face in his hands, Paul said the only thing he could think of.

“Would you just shut the fuck up.”

He’d intended it to be a whisper, that protest, but when the room went dead silent, he knew he’d not only said it out loud, but loud enough that even the president had heard him. Raising his head, he became aware that every eye in the room was on him. Even the president, who had brushed over more inconvenient questions than anyone present could remember, stood, mouth half open, at the podium and stared at him. Then his mouth closed, and, pointing at Paul, he started to speak.

“Could security come and remove this man?”

He was in it now. He’d be thrown out of the White House press pool, probably banned from covering the president in any way. Fuck it, if I’m gonna go, I might as well enjoy the ride. Paul rose from his seat, and pointed at the president as he started to speak.

“I can’t speak for the rest of the press here, but I really, honestly do wish you would just shut the fuck up!” He hadn’t intended to shout, but that’s what he was doing by the end of that sentence. He carried on, just as loudly. “I mean do you honestly think there’s one person in this room who’s stupid enough to not know that you’re a lying sack of shit?” Paul motioned towards the mouthpiece who’d just delivered the softball question. “You should hear what that clown says about you away from here. He thinks you’re a moron. Hell, hie loves to describe you is ‘He’s proof positive that you don’t have to have a brain to walk upright and run your mouth.’” A barely-suppressed wave of laughter spread across the room, and the president’s face went a deep, unhealthy red. “I know I’m going to be barred from the White House for the rest of your administration, but fuck it. I’m going to tell you the truth. You’re an inept, bumbling idiot. You’ve gone from one cluster fuck to another like you don’t know any other way to manage than by screwing things up. And here’s a clue for you: your response to this pandemic is a sick joke! You’ve done nothing right, and now, nearly two hundred thousand Americans are dead because you’re an idiot who thinks he’s a genius!” Paul saw the Secret Service standing beside the entrance smile, but he also saw one of the private security guards who stayed around the president rushing towards the end of the aisle Paul stood in. That’s as far as he got. Larry stood up, arms crossed, almost daring the hired goon to try pushing past him.

Someone started clapping, Paul couldn’t see who. Then the whole press corp stood, and facing him, started to applaud. Other goons started pressing into the room, working their way down the aisle from the end away from Larry. Some of the other press people stood in their way, but none of them had the massive ‘don’t fuck with me’ presence Larry had. It would only be a moment before one of them grabbed him, but Paul knew what his final act would be. Pulling the lanyard for his press credential over his head, he wrapped it around the plastic sleeve and tossed it towards the front of the room. “You can claim you kick me out, but you’re too late. There’s my press pass, and you can shove it up your ass for all I care. I’d rather be unemployed than spend another minute listening to the bullshit that spews out of your mouth!”

Paul had expected that to be the end of it, that he’d be unceremoniously thrown off the White House grounds and that would be the end of his career. What he didn’t expect was the shower of press credentials followed his, nor the cheer that accompanied them. Even the hired security goon had been stopped by a wall of reporters and cameramen who had formed between him and Paul. One, Karrem O’Brian from CNN, pointed towards his camera. “That was great, and it went out live too! It’ll probably get the shit censored out of it, but thanks, man, I think you just broke the rating record!”

Paul got escorted off the White House grounds, but not by a bunch of hired security. The press corp walked out around him, en masse. An even bigger shock awaited Paul when he contacted his boss at the Chicago “Sun-Times”. Not only was his boss not angry, he wanted Paul to stay on the campaign trail, hounding the president. Paul took the assignment after helping his father bury his mother.

But something else happened that day: not only did the press corp walk out with him, they stayed out, never returning until after the president was defeated and removed. It became known as The Great TV Strike, and Paul became famous as the person who started it.

The Note

Jamal stood in the doorway and wondered if he’d made the right decision. He knew that his grades hadn’t been stellar, and his Bachelor of Arts in Music Education came from a university that was no Julliard. Still, the scene before him made him wonder if he might have rushed his decision to take his new job.

A college friend had told him of an open job running a smaller university’s music library. Jamal, with his student debt looming and no steady job, had been happy to apply. He’d been asked to interview, and to say his panel had been disappointing would be an understatement. He’d entered the room to find four people sitting behind a cheap folding table. A white woman with fading blond hair and a girth nearly as great as her height sat next to a black man who might have been a walking skeleton. Next to him sat a shriveled Asian man who’s wrinkled face looked like it had never experienced a smile. The last member had been another woman who spent the entire interview with her eyes fixed on her smartphone. She remained silent through the whole interview, leaving the others to ask a few cursory questions about his musical education. Fifteen minutes after he’d sat down, he was walking back to his car.

Jamal had been sure he wouldn’t get the job, sure enough that he’d gone back to his previous best source of income: DJ’ing at a strip club. It came as a complete surprise when, three days after his interview, Jamal received a job offer. The specifics were that he would manage the university music library and “undertake such other duties as may be specified by the Dean of the School of Music”.

Now, he stood in the entrance to his new ‘office’, which looked more like storage space than office space. It was inside the music building of Western Iowa University, completely enclosed by the building. He stood in one doorway, and not fifteen feet in front of him was another doorway. Those were the only openings in the concrete block walls that made up the space. And seeing as how the other door was in a wall further inside the building, where it might lead was a mystery.

Stretching between those two doors, a swath of thread-bare carpeting that looked like it hadn’t been vacuumed in ages. A motley collection of tired office furniture lines the walls, no two pieces the same height, and all of them stacked with oddments of paper. File folders bulging with sheet music. Pages laid out in grids that could have been calendars, or schedules, or any number of other things. Stacks of blank paper in a multitude of vivid, even garish colors stood in different spots, though Jamal saw no printer anywhere that might use them.

The room was offset to the right of the door, and here a weary desk stood. It held a collection of pens, sticky note pads and in its center, a flat screen display. Facing it was a desk chair, the only new piece of furniture in the entire room. Jamal looked at it and shook his head. “I guess if you’re spending all your time in here, you’d want something comfortable to sit in.” He hadn’t been told anything about the person he was replacing, and they evidently didn’t feel enough attachment to the job to be around to tell him how to do it, so he was on his own.

Hooking the chair with his foot, Jamal pulled it out and sat down. He found it to be every bit as comfortable as it looked to be. “Don’t know who you were, but you had good taste in chairs.” The monitor light glowed yellow, but when he reached where he expected the mouse to be, it wasn’t there. No, the former user had placed it on the other side, the left. A quick swipe brought the monitor alive, and after consulting his phone, he entered his user credentials and brought the machine fully to life. Finding Yoda staring at him out of the monitor brought the first smile he’d had this day to his face. Croaking in his best imitation of the fictional Jedi master, he addressed the screen. “Troubled, you are, by your decision!”

“Not bad, but you need to pitch your voice a half-octave higher to really make it sound like Yoda.”

The voice caught Jamal by surprise. It was the Asian man from the interview panel, and he stood in the doorway with his lips set in a broad grin that proved he did know what a smile was. “Sir, I mean professor-” Jamal had heard the man’s name, but the surprise of the moment drove it from his recollection. He started to rise but the older man motioned for him to stay seated.

“I’m Jang, Jang Li Jun, and you can call me Lee, or Professor Jang if you feel the absurd need to be formal. And don’t be bothered by not remembering my name. We went through that interview pretty quickly, so I’m not amazed you forgot my name. I remember your name is Jamal Jones, but I have the advantage of having read your name more than once, and hearing it several times. You made a very good impression on the whole panel, even the Dean thought you did well when you didn’t respond to her ignoring you.”

“So that’s why she kept her nose in her phone! I thought she was just some bored civil servant who found her social media account more interesting than me.”

“She’s no civil servant, far from it.” Lee leaned towards Jamal before continuing in a lower voice. “She’s only been in charge of the School of Music for five months, and she’s ruthless about getting rid of anyone she feels has an independent streak. That’s why you’ve got this job. Miss Jenny wasn’t one to kow-tow to anyone, even a new Dean.”

“Miss Jenny? Who’s that?”

That brought a surprisingly deep, warm laugh from Lee. “Miss Jenny was a force of nature, that’s who she was. She’d been working here, in this office, for five years before I started teaching. She pretty much ran the day-to-day operations of the school. If you were a professor who needed a piece of music ordered, or one pulled from the library, she was the person you talked to. Students who needed a room to practice in, or who needed to rent an instrument came to her too. She’d schedule recitals and concerts, do all the work to get the programs laid out and printed, and even arrange for the people to do the off-stage work. She retired two weeks ago when the new Dean dumped every system she’d set up to keep this place running. Mind you, she was less than half a year away from the date she’d have normally been able to retire, but she had enough sick time and comp time saved up that I hear she retired with a little over 31 years of service credited to her.”

Jamal hadn’t been alive for even thirty years, and the idea of holding a job for so many years just didn’t seem possible to him. “So which school did she get her Music degree from?”
The question made Lee stare for a moment before answering. “That’s the thing, Miss Jenny didn’t have any education in music. She was a Political Science major, got her BA right here at Western Iowa. She once told me she started working for the university as a part-timer, while she was still a student. She was offered a full-time job in Registrations after she work two semesters there.” Lee smiled, perhaps remembering something his former coworker had said. “She told me she hated the job, but she needed the income, so she stuck with it. I don’t know how she ended up getting her job here, and I know she considered me one of her closest friends. Why they picker her, I don’t know, but whomever hired her was either smart or lucky.”

Jamal let his head swing around, taking in the mess about him. Would a good office manager leave an office in this sort of shape? Maybe his expression gave away what he was thinking, because Lee answered Jamal’s question.

“Don’t let the status of this office fool you. Like I said, she’s been gone for two weeks now, and with no student workers to keep things organized, professors and other people who needed stuff have just been coming in and rooting around for what they want. Then again, Miss Jenny didn’t keep this place as neat as a pin. She liked to say she had her trash stored according to her own special system, and it was uncommon for her to not know where to look for something if she needed it.”

Waving his hand towards the door at the back, Jamal asked the question that statement brought to mind. “So, is this the sort of shape the music library is in?”

The smile vanished, fast. “No, it isn’t. More to the point, it’s not behind that door. It’s up on the third floor, and takes up three former practice room. That door leads to the backstage of the concert hall, and getting that set up for performances is something else Miss Jenny learned to do.” A beeping noise stopped what looked to be a long lecture. “I’ve got a class to get ready for, but let me give you one final piece of information. Miss Jenny might not have had a musical education, but she played a big part in keeping this department running. So as they say, you’ve got one big set of shoes to fill. As a first step, you might want to careful about how you speak about her.”

Professor Lee stepped away from the door, but someone was waiting to take his place. The young Latina woman in sweats with a backpack slung over one shoulder looked past Jamal, then focused on him. “Are you running this place now?” Jamal opened his mouth to answer, but she didn’t give him a chance to speak. “I asked for the sheet music for Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A to be pulled, the piece his catalog refers to as K581. Do you know if that was ever done? I need that music so I can start practicing for my recital, and I’ve only got two weeks to get myself and the musicians who will be supporting me up to speed.”

Jamal rose. “Yes, I am running the library, and no, I don’t know if your music has been retrieved. Today’s my first, and so far, I’ve been told nothing about how I’m to run this office.”

Some musicians act like normal people, but others take the role of diva to heart. This woman seemed to be the latter. “Whatever. Can you just get me my music, now if possible. People are in Room 245, waiting to start practicing.”

“Yeah, just give me a minute to look for it.” Jamal was very tempted to tell this self-important little thing to take a hike and come back later, but he checked his temper. Whether it had been left there or Fate had decided to smile down on him, the file folder Jamal had noted earlier bore the label “Mozart: Clarinet Quintet in A, K581” His hand started to close around it when he saw the piece of paper laying next to it. It was a shade of green that took the term attention-grabbing to a new level. But the thing that really stood out wasn’t the color of the paper, but how what had been hand-written on it jarred against what he was experiencing.

“To whomever takes over this office: May you make many happy memories.”

Putting several comments that message brought to mind aside, Jamal gave the sheet music stuffed folder to the insistent student. “Here’s your music. I take it there’s some sort of procedure for signing school property like this out, but no one’s told me what it is. So, do you know?” He might as well have spoken to one of the concrete blocks in the wall, for all the attention the woman paid him. She’d gotten three steps before Jamal decided how to handle the situation. A head taller and with longer legs, he was in front of the student in four fast strides. “I’m in charge of the music library now, and I am not going to just let you walk off with that sheet music. I need you to at least show me your student ID, and to sign for the music.”

Diva looked up at him, frowned, and shook her head. “I thought we’d stop that nonsense once to old bitch was gone. Fine. The sign-out sheet is on that clipboard, the one lying next to where this folder was. So why don’t you go get it and I’ll sign it for you.”

Jamal had once priced a copy of the sheet music for the trumpet Concerto in D Major after hearing Winton Marsalis slay it, so he had a good idea of how much replacing the music in that folder would cost. “No, you’re coming back to the office and signing that music out there. I might be new to this job, but I’m no fool. That music’s worth several hundred dollars. I don’t know your name, or anything about you, so I am not going to trust that you won’t walk off with it.”

Diva stiffened visibly. “Are you accusing me of being a thief?”

Jamal raised his hands. “No, I’m not, I’m just telling you the truth: I don’t know you, so I don’t have any basis to judge how you might act. Now, are you willing to be reasonable and come back to the office, or do you want to keep your accompanists waiting while we continue this confrontation?”

For a moment, Jamal thought Diva would choose to keep arguing. Then, her shoulders slumped and she turned on her heels to march back to the office. Jamal followed her, glad that she’d seen reason. At the doorway, Diva stopped and pulled her backpack around to extract a wallet. Flipping it open, she turned one side of it towards Jamal. “Here’s my student ID, See, I really am a student here.” Diva was willing to comply to get what she wanted, but it was clear she wasn’t going to stop acting like a self-centered bitch. Focusing in on the ID, he gave it a quick read, then walked into the office, his office, and grabbed the clipboard holding the sign-out sheet. Holding it out, Jamal did what he could to smooth things over.

“So, you’re Maaria Carcamo? I’m sorry for not getting your music for you right away, but I hope you’ll understand that the last thing I need on my first day on the job is to have a piece of music vanish.”

Whether it was his attempt at being conciliatory, or her desire to be done and on her way, Maaria signed the sheet without protest. Handing it back, she gave him the first smile he’d seen on her face. “I guess I can understand that. Thanks and good luck with the new job.”

Jamal laid the clipboard back where he’d found it, and as he did, he saw the note again. Shaking his head, he moved the note to his desk. “I don’t know if that was a good memory or not, but at least it wasn’t a total disaster.”

Someone clearing their throat caught his attention. A short, heavy-set white boy with a bad case of acne blocked most of the doorway, but standing behind him, a beefy black kid in a Bob Marley t-shirt gave Jamal a broad smile. White boy cleared his throat again before speaking. “Sir, are you in charge here? I need a locker to store my sousaphone in.”

Jamal had once seen one of those monstrous brass instruments, the marching band version of a tuba, and couldn’t believe that any school had a locker big enough to stuff one into. The black kid saved him from his ignorance.

“I tried to tell this fool that the school hasn’t got any lockers big enough for his toy, but he won’t listen to me. Miss Jenny had to deal with another player semester before last. She let him store his instrument in the control cage for the concert hall lights.” He leaned past the offended-looking brass player and held out his hand. “I’m Jack, Jack Lister, and I was hoping you might be looking for a student worker who knows what’s happening around here.”

Jamal hadn’t been, but if this kid had enough knowledge to know the size of the biggest lockers, he’d be worth having around. Taking the outstretched hand, he shook it. “I hadn’t planned on it, but then again, nobody told me I could hire student workers either. Any help you can give me, Jack, I’d appreciate it, starting with telling me how I go about hiring you.” Releasing Jack’s hand, Jamal focused on the other kid. “I’m sorry, but this is my first day on the job, and I’ll have to defer to those who know more about the situation than I do. If you’re okay with storing your instrument backstage, and if Jack here will show us where this cage is, I can get you set up. Okay?”

If the frown on his face was any indication, the white kid was far from happy. But unlike Marria, he didn’t seem interested in being a pain in the ass. “Yeah, that’s fine. As long as I don’t have it in my dorm room, I’ll be relieved. I’ll have to go get it, but I should be back in, like, half an hour.”

“Fine, when you get back, come round here and I’ll get you set up.” White boy left, leaving Jamal to size up Jack without distractions. He had the prominent muscles of an athlete, not the sagging frame Jamal and pretty much all the other musicians he knew had. “So, Jack, football or basketball?”

Jack laughed. “Neither. I’ve been working summers for a moving company. You do that and you either get fit, or you don’t stay on the job, and I need the extra cash.”

Jamal could understand that. He hadn’t been happy DJ’ing, but it was a job, and he too needed the money. And Jamal could use someone with that sort of work ethic. Holding his hand out again, he gave his new employee’s hand another shake. “To borrow the line, Jack, I think this might be the start of a beautiful friendship.”

“Mr Jones?”

The voice woke Jamal from his unplanned nap more efficiently than a splash of ice water. Cathy Park, the oldest of his current crop of student employees, stood in the doorway, her frown and cocked head signs to anyone who knew her that she was concerned for his health. Did he really look that frail? Just the thought of one of his workers feeling the need to mother him brought his temper bubbling to the surface. “I’m fine, I just got tired of waiting for you and Fran to bring the instruments down from 421 is all.”

Cathy gave him a smile that went no further than her lips. “Yes, sir, they’[re right here on the cart, and here’s the scans of the inventory tags.”

A flick of her finger across the intelligent watch she wore brought the holographic display in front of Jamal alive. Yes, they’d brought him the instruments that needed to be serviced. Virtual reality could allow students to do a lot of things, but getting the feel of french horn’s rotor valves opening and closing under their fingers was something else, Learning that meant having the an instrument in your hand. Two of the school’s horns were on the cart, as was the old Schilke trumpet Jamal played in his spare time. It hadn’t been serviced in years, and the last time Jamal had played it, he’d noted that one of it’s valves had started leaking. Between them and the annual visit from the piano tuner, they would eat most of the school’s maintenance budget. But they all needed to be working, especially the Schilke, which was one of the best-sounding trumpets they had in the school. “Okay, take the cart down to the main backstage entrance and put it all in the cage with the pianos. Pau won’t be here until tomorrow morning to pick them up, but if we’ve got them down here and ready to take, he can’t complain about having to wait on us.” That drew a laugh from Cathy, who’d had to deal with Pau Linnus’ fixation on getting pick-ups done quickly. Not that he’d ever shown any hurry about getting the instruments he took in done, but he was cheap and his repairs were outstanding.

“Yes sir. We’ll get them put away and I’ll get back to going through our music database.”

Jamal squinted at the time displayed in the corner of the holographic interface. “Sure, and there’s no need to hurry on that database clean-up. It’s close to time for you to go off the clock. And remember what I told you: never work overtime if you’re not getting paid for it!” The girl smiled, then started to turn away, but before she could walk away, he reminded her of something he’d told her on her first day. “And what’s with this ‘sir’ and ‘Mister Jones’? I’m Jamal, and I keep this place running. I’m not some manager with an office and a nice window to stare out of while they wait for time to go home to arrive.”

Cathy laughed at the old joke. “Yes sir, Mister Jamal sir! We’ll put this stuff away and be on our way.” Then the smile vanished and her face went serious. “And I hope you’ll follow your own advice, Jamal. Jack wouldn’t have wanted to know you were working all the hours you do.”

As she walked away, Jamal remembered that was why he’d been thinking of Jack. There was a holo-image of him on the wall, standing before the CSO, bow poised and ready to start the violin solo from Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade”. He’d gone far beyond this small school, and justly so.

He’d died earlier today, dropping dead from a heart condition no one knew he had. Jamal had taken the image he looked at now, the performance staged for him by his oldest friend after he’d recovered from chemo. Jamal still remembered being ushered into the vast hall, alone, to sit near the stage before being introduced to the entire orchestra as ‘the man who helped me on my way’.

Jack was just one of the many students he’d interacted with and helped when they needed help in his twenty years on the job. But thinking of him gone, of never having a chance to hear his violin soaring above the rest of the orchestra again, he felt tears forming in his eyes. As he wiped them away, his eyes strayed away from the holo-image to a more conventional frame, one that held a single sheet of green paper. The awful green had faded to something only slightly stomach-turning, but the still-black letters looked back at him now.

“To whomever inherits this office, may you make many happy memories.”

Losing his oldest and best friend Jack had been a blow, not the sort of memory he wanted, but as Jamal reflected on his time in this room, it was offset by many more good memories. He had no plans to retire any time soon, but Jamal knew that when he did, he’d make sure to leave that note, frame and all, lying in the middle of his desk. It was still a drab little space, but it was also a place where Jamal had made many good memories. All he could hope is that whomever took over from him would find a way to make their own happy memories.

There’s hope after all

This is just a short update on my novel “A Dream Before Dying”. I had the exceptional luck to encounter English major Stephanie Martin in an online discussion group, and she agreed to undertake the editing of my novel. The resulting commented text arrived a few days ago, and much to my surprise, she feels it is worth bringing forward. It does need an extensive amount of editing. rewriting and most important of all, some serious trimming, but she feels the story itself has merit.

So hopefully, once I’ve gotten through her advice and admonishments, I’ll be able to shape the rough manuscript I burdened her into something worth submitting to a publisher. Finger’s crossed.