Tuesday, May 14, 2013

In the Silence of Her Eyes



In the Silence of Her Eyes
by
William Hiles
© 2011


I watched her die in the rain.  A soft, cold rain that seeped slowly into the bone.  I’ll never be warm again.  And I’ll never love the rain . . .
Something intangible had fled from me; a spirit bearing the last vestiges of hope and joy.  Perhaps fled was not the right word.  There was no dead of night reckoning.  No midnight weeping at the abrupt realization. It had been more like a small puncture that had bled out over the course of a long journey.  Towards the end, I could feel it all coming to a one-sided stop in the middle of a vast shelter-less desert.  
We stopped talking.  We stopped feeling.  Hands in time, hands through the darkness, ceased to meet.  We drifted, inarticulate, suddenly strangers with familiar faces, through the days like icy smoke.  The rooms of our house echoed our presence, then faded into silence.  The substance between us had thinned to a transparent thread, and we wondered when it would finally break. And who would be the cause . . .
The ticking clock above the mantle measured the passage of our trackless existence.  Each tick, each tock, moving us into a future leached of color; opening a door to a winter-killed garden populated by memories flash frozen into empty reliquaries.
I remember watching her face as she slept, soft breaths in the waning night, my eyes lingering, my mind holding fast to every curve, every line, my heart trembling in the effort to bring the past to life; to join what I had lost with what I once had.  I watched until dawn and wept softly in the ashes of a fire long dead . . .
Towards the end she begged me to stay, her fingers like frightened doves on her face, reaching out through the pale-light spaces to my arm.   Foolishly I told her that it would not be for long.  A time to ponder.  A time to regain a pathway back to my own forgotten heart.  
“I don’t want to lose you,” she said, the words stuttered and clenched between sobs.  And for one second, for one brief halting of the world, I felt a meeting of souls, of old lovers, of eternal friends; a fleeting glimpse of our younger selves in an ancient cracked mirror.
But it was all too late.  I was on a journey without roadmaps.  I knew not what I was doing, only that I had to do it.  
On the bridge, I watched her die with each passing second.  She stood still, her eyes fading into a darkness, a silence, that would allow her heart to live on, though the world had come to an end.  I closed my eyes. 
A statue in a winter-killed garden.  Fashioned by an artist both cruel and loving, with hands stained by blood and tears.
As I turned to leave . . . one last look.
And in the silence of her eyes, all that I had loved, all that had I remembered, trembled gently and died in the soft, cold rain . . .

At the End of the Day

At the End of the Day
By Wm Hiles
© 2009


     A hand without lines brushes the light from the young woman’s  vision;  this darkness ensues like a widening door to an open crypt and she begs and she screams, unmindful of the words whispered in her ears.  There is only the wind.  Cold and dank and speaking in a language know only to the past.  Know only to those silent, barren places where her dreams were beached and grew brittle and pale under starless skies.
      Alone . . . so alone . . . I am so . . .
      “No--” The word wanders lost behind her teeth, having risen from each and every cell in her body; a collective agreement bound by one simple need.  Survival.  The need to save herself from that gnawing darkness.  The need to be.  This I.  This Me.  This heart that bleeds to whiteness in a house of winter.  It is coaxed and begged but in vain.  The hand without lines, it plucks the word, holds it gently in its palm, and then allows it to be blown into the night like dust.
      “You have never been alone.”  But she resents these words.  Refutes them with the heart of an anguished fire.
      “Liar! Liar!”
      The hand curls away.  A face looms into view like cream poured into black coffee. The eyes tell the tale of journeys made and yet to be made, of endless meetings and endless partings.  There is a gentleness in the eyes that surprises her.  Is this him? she wonders.  Has he returned?
      “Yes,” the face says and smiles like a weary lover.  “I’m here now . . . .”  The eyes flow in brightness, tears crawl; raindrops on glass panes, streaking, seeking each other . . . .
     “I have been so lost, so empty--”
     “I am sorry.”
     “It was so unfair,” the young woman whispers.
     “I know.”  The hand reappears and slowly eclipses the flowing eyes, the saddening smile, the understanding face.  She feels arms sliding around her body.  “A little moment,” the voice whispers.  The arms embrace her  and she feels the slowing of her heart, the slowing of her fear, the slowing of her thoughts.  The young woman is in darkness, cradled in coolness, spun out into sudden flight, among unblinking stars.
     He holds her gently and faces the distant restless sea; a sailor come home to the strangeness of land, at last, at last . . . .
     Though the gods have become but leaves and shadows, gathering in moonlit corners, speaking to an audience of memory and dust, he gazes down at her sleeping face and feels the world stop its turning . . .

Night Birds

Night Birds
by
Wm Hiles
© 2009


These mysteries fall like wounded birds through my soul; wings flashing scarlet in the light of a dying sun, wind-tattered and trembling, tumbling . . . through the color-leached air.

Hands cupping darkness reach through the pale spaces to collect these fragile winged ponderings.  To hold and listen to the last whisper of cold truths from beaks seared and numbed by flight through sacred fires: They say I am not.  I am not.  Only in the burning of a freezing sun, where tears fall and shatter like glass, can I realize what I am meant to be . . .

Perhaps.

These mysteries, these haunted, star-eyed nightbirds come bidding in the lowest ebb of tide, exposing the bleached whiteness of a still further shore, revealing by each lunar pull another trackless surface: I stood upon this and witnessed my own presence and saw that all was impermanent, shallow, filled by itself, devoured by itself, lost to the darkness.

To be.  To be not.  This I am.   This I am not.  One mask with two faces, each in denial of the other.  A mask made of lead in a country of gold.  A mask through which everything is lost and forgotten.

I turn from the empty shore. Watching as each footstep fills and bleeds and fades from sight.  I lift my head to the sky, filling with an expanse, a wind-gentle leaning towards . . . a clarity, a cleanness, a flight within a heart long bound and tethered.  The nightbirds rise around me like mist and I can hear their whispers.

With aching fingers I grip the edges of the mask.  Flesh and blood.  Soul and spirit.  There is a parting and a joining and I stand bleeding, raw . . .

But somehow, the night upon my naked face is tender.

I hear the rustle of wings.  The soft touch of wind.  The sweet calling of stars.

These things and much more . . . I am.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Emerald City Confidential



Emerald City Confidential (WIP)
By William Hiles
© Wm J. Hiles 2010


Feet on the desk, staring at the phone, listening to the rain tapping on the window behind me.  Shift ending.  Figuring the odds.  Lazy look across the squad room.  Empty.  Maybe I can get the hell out of--

Phone jangles--almost tip the chair ass-backwards.  “Sgt. Denkins, 9th Precinct Homicide.”

Hearing the essentials--mind clicking: Something familiar about this one. 

“I’m on it.”

***

Rain’s cooled off the late summer heat; brilliant sunset turning the sky crimson.  The air smells fresh as I head out of the city and into the western district.  Leaning out the car window I take a lungful: Time for a vacation Denkie . . .

Near The Road, Winkie territory, tape up, blues huddled in the mud, smoking, wisecracking.  Techs on the way, ME pulling up.  I break the huddle.  “Start canvasing!”  Harsh--but figure new stripes, new image. 

“Yes sir.”  Heads nod. 

Pulson, Homicide Boss, arrives--been sleeping in his clothes.  He waves, hustles over, scowling at the mud splattering his shoes.  Catches a wide-eyed glance at the scene.  “Damn!  That looks--”

“Familiar?”

Pulson scratching day old stubble:  “Historical. But I remember the file.  Gotta call the chief on this.”

Thinking: chief couldn’t solve the instructions on a flush toilet.   From the corner of my eye: commotion in the crowd.  Small guys restless--scared?  Pissed?  Hard to tell.  One old Munch, hitching up his shorts:  “I saw it!  Saw it big as life!  There was this huge rainbow and then it came--DOWN!” 

I tell a blue to get a statement.  Turning to the crime scene:  PC this?  Unlawful use of a domicile?  I scratch my head.  Pulson shrugs.  “Ancient MO--gotta figure a renewed serial or a copycat.”

Up to the house, hunkering down on popping knees.  ME joins me, says: “Real dead.  No shoes.”  Laughing. 

I sigh.  That old file.   A hunch.  Probably way off base: “Okay, APB--white female, age around 15, brunette, maybe 4'10" . . .”

Pulson kicks the house.  “Hell of a way to go.  Freaky odds.”  He searches the sky.  Clear, no rainbows.

Pondering the muddy feet; no shoes, striped socks:  “Yeah.  Two in a million.”





* * *


Emerald City Tattler, May 59 Issue

THE SKY FALLING?


 Seems rainbows are back and the sky is falling once again--and on some poor schmuck out for a little stroll on The Road.  The official word from our esteemed Homicide Dicks at the Emerald City PD is squat, but Tattler ears have been scoping the walls and have come up with some tidbits.

Item: 70 years ago a similar incident with a falling house and a rainbow.  The result?  East Side rackets wide open, Big Bad Eastie Witch clipped in her prime.  Little Sister, that Wacky Wicked West Witch, swooping in to take control.  Coincidence?  Does a munchkin snort jelly doughnuts?

Item: That Wacky Wicked Witch, who now runs both sides of town, is liquidated by an outside hitter going by the nom de guerre of  “Dorothy.”  Connection?  You better bet your grandma’s savings!    Seems it was “Dorothy’s” wayward house that started this.  Should “Dorothy” have two notches on her gunbelt?  We think so.

Item: The Great and Wonderful Wiz--remember that crazy dude?  Reports had him getting out of town in one big hurry after “Dorothy” showed up with her new found pals.  These pals?  Well, Tattler readers, they were none other than our beloved mayor, the original Straw Man, his strongarm  and confidant CL, and TM, his Tinness Himself--The Reverend of Hearts and Rainbows!

What wonderful times we live--can you dig it?  Stay tuned boys and girls . . . this is but the beginning of the rainbow!


* * *


ME’s report--laugh riot all the way.  Doc’s getting jaded. Or boosting something from the ol’ medicinal cabinet.  “Blunt force trauma.”  Real funny guy. 

Crime scene glossies: house settling crooked, structure pretty much shot.  Fell a ways.  The rainbow connection?  Already, the Reverend TM is squawking about a “Second Coming.”  Ten thousand believers chanting love and rainbows over at the Dorothy Gale Memorial Temple. 

Pick up the phone; Klimper down in files.  Time to use up a favor.  “Klimp?  Denkins. Yeah, you Munch lover!  Need an oldie.  The old WIZ file.”  Timed it; eight minutes.  “No shit?”  Hang up--mind clicking into high revs:  File missing. 

Phone jangles, thinking Klimp found it after all. 

It’s the ME.  Seems like our DOA was packing high grade Sweet.  Uncut, pure rainbow--best he’s ever seen.  Five pounds.  That’s Glinda’s racket.  Good Witch of the North stuff.  On the grapevine: Esperelda’s Westies and Emilinda’s Easties duking it out, five stiffs in five days, a real war brewing.  Glinda’s got the Munchkin trade--north and southside--but she’s losing control: dipping too often into her own stash.  Got a sugar Jones like an elephant.  Figure whoever comes out on top in the West-East war is looking to move on Glinda.  And if Glinda has stuff like our DOA . . .

Figure the house job was a contract hit.  Gotta be.  Warning to Glinda.  Damnit!  Need that old file.    “We got a real war here!”  I could see a rainbow all right--one covered in blood.


* * *


Extract: History of Emerald City, Vol. 10, Chapter XXIV, Page 735


 . . . The deaths of the Wicked Witches of the West and East, the sudden appearance of one Dorothy Gale of Kansas, and the hasty departure of the Wizard issued in a new era.  The Scarecrow, intellectual heir to the Wizard and Dorothy confidant, proclaimed the start of a renaissance that would lift the land of Oz into the modern age.  Bright promises that were never fully fulfilled.  Dorothy Gale of Kansas (rumored to have been involved in the deaths of the two witches) vanished.  The new mayor appointed The Cowardly Lion as his unofficial strongarm, and the Tin Man turned his back on politics and found religion.  The triple-headed monster of crime, drug addiction and rampant unemployment began to assert its ugly presence.  The elimination of both Witches had only led to a vacuum that was soon contested and filled by even more ambitious wickedness . . .

And then there was the so-called Rainbow Cult.  In the beginning it was isolated to the rural areas, primarily among the Munchkins.  The cult’s leader, The Reverend of Hearts and Rainbows TM--proclaimed free love and the fervent belief that Dorothy Gale lived “somewhere over the rainbow” and would return once again to deliver Oz from darkness.  Dorothyisms such as “There’s No Place Like Home” crept into popular culture.  The spread of TM’s cult to the mainstream assured him a voice in Emerald City politics--much to the dismay of his former colleagues, whose policies had been termed “short-sighted,” “immoral,” and “greedy,” by the Reverend . . .


* * *


Pulson collapsing into a chair: “I’m gonna give ya five men from special squad.”

Goon squad square-heads.  Just what I need.  “What about Narco?  That five pound bag of Rainbow is going to perk them up.”

Pulson works a fingernail between front teeth.  Sucking.  “Leave Hopper’s boys out of this for now.” 

Lt. Jimpy Hopper, Narco Chief; runs a tight ship.  A little too tight.  Internal Affairs brass been looking for dirt there for ages.  Too much politico power, what with Hopper’s connection to the Lion and his little mayoral approved operations.    “Okay, no Hopper, but I need the skinny on northside activities--sugar cribs, movers, buyers.”

Pulson leaning forward, worry creases deep: “You figure the Westies are making a play for Glinda?”

“That house job was in Westie territory.  I don’t know if the house was a means of transport.  I don’t know if anyone was inside the house when it hit--”

“The Reverend TM thinks so.  It’s the Second Coming of Dorothy.”

Religious fanatics.  Vice says they’re clean, but Vice tends to get nice little presents and freebies at the Temple.  And TM lording over it all, nice and shiny, always dancing with a big ol’ ticking heart hanging off his chest.  “The Reverend and his old pals don’t get along right?  Calling the mayor and his advisor moral degenerates.  What’s his angle?  I know he’s got connections with
Glinda . . .” 

I shake my head--it’s hurting bad.  Rainbows, witches and dancing Tin Men.  What a world. 


* * *


The dream: I’m eight and momma’s dragging me to the Temple.  The sky cracked with lightning, the wind cutting like a cold knife.  We’re running down through the center of the city and momma’s telling me that a rainbow’s coming and Blessed Dorothy was going to return and take us to a paradise called Kansas.  Side streets open, others join us like streams to a river, and we’re all flowing toward the Great Gold Temple.  I can hear the bells ringing through the thunder and this massive moaning, chanting crowd.  My hand slips.  Pulled away from momma, but she doesn’t notice.  Bodies pressing against me, squeezing the breath from my little body.  “Momma don’t leave me!  Momma!  Momma!”

I still wake up screaming.  My first wife couldn’t take it.  Bugsville, she thought.  You and your damn religious fanatic mother. 

Yeah, momma . . . true blue Rainbower.  Drove my dad to the bottle, drove him to a short rope and a long drop from the attic rafters.  “Denkie,” momma would say.  “Your father didn’t believe and now he’s not going to Kansas.” 

Did I ever believe?  Watching HIM up there, shining like the sun, his big ticking heart held out in one hand, his voice booming out across the congregation: “THE TIME IS NIGH.  PREPARE YOUR HEARTS FOR THE BLESSED RETURN.  FILL YOUR SOULS WITH THE COLORS OF THE RAINBOW AND YOU SHALL BE SAVED.”
Sitting in the dark--sweat turning cold down my back:  “I don’t think you’re in Kansas momma.”


* * *


Emerald After Hours, May 14, 59 Issue

KANSAS HERE WE COME??

The word is out!  Dorothy Gale has returned.  Or has she?  What does the sudden appearance of a house in the West End and the upswing of religious fervor among the TRUE BELIEVERS mean for Oz?  Faithful readers, we at Emerald After Hours smell a con job in the making.  The Reverend of Hearts and Rainbows has been proclaiming the imminent return of the Prodigal Dorothy for almost 70 years but with membership flagging (read shrinking dues) does this strange turn of events not strike one as slightly advantageous?

Ms. Dala Ritnum, that sultry siren of the silver screen AND the Rainbower’s most outspoken advocate, outside of HizzHoliness Himself that is, was seen yesterday in the middle of Emerald Square dancing au naturale with a festive group of believers.  Her comment upon being rousted by the boys in blue?  “We’re going to Kansas!”

It would seem to us that mass hysteria is the order of the day and HizzHoliness is the one giving the orders.  Thousands of pilgrims have made their way to the site of the mysterious falling house--a booming business for the West Land Gang--and the local PD have their hands full.  “We got a damn homicide investigation going on!  They’re screwing with evidence!”  This from Homicide Chief Pulson.  All we can say to the beleaguered Chief is, “They’ll soon all be hitching a ride on the Holy Rainbow and going straight to Kansas.”


* * *


Leads--none.  Suspects--too damn many.  Pulson’s special squad--my little task force now--out hitting known associates of Glinda’s Gillie and Quad outfit.  The Big Boss, C of P, wants an update.  Pulson says the old man is nervous.  Pressure from the mayor?  The DA wants it wrapped up--Grand Jury in record time.  What’s the rush?  Hopper and his Narco boys raising all kinds of ruckus: “It’s a Narco investigation!”  Wrong, I can feel it in my bones.  This is something else.  Something big. 

Chief of Police Traynor--once a great man, now shriveled, reduced to messenger boy for the Scarecrow Machine.  I can see the strings on him; puppet with a very big puppeteer.  The walls of his office are a sad reminder of glories past--citations, honors, pics showing him rubbing elbows with political royalty.  I sit there, Pulson beside me, and just nod my head.

“We want a quick resolution to this,” says the Chief, hands steepled, fingers to chin.  “The Mayor and the DA want it wrapped up.”  Chief points to a map on the wall.  “Sgt. Denkins, what’s your take on the situation?”

Clearing my throat: “Things are getting out of hand.  Glinda’s the ruling crime boss in Oz, she’s got the Gillies up north and the Quads in the south--but she’s slipping.  The Westies and their Winkie muscle are involved in a war against the Easties and their Munchkin muscle.  Winner takes on Glinda for total control of all crime activities in Oz.  This house hit was in Winkie territory, the DOA was not a Winkie, but one of Glinda’s soldiers who was packing Rainbow.  Glinda’s gonna hit back, just a matter of time.”

The Chief purses his lips, nodding: “Meanwhile the Reverend TM has his people wound up to a fever pitch.  This Dorothy phenomenon could be dangerous.  Are you sure there was no one in that house?”

Shrugging, gut instinct says yes, but the evidence says no way in hell anyone could have survived that fall.  “It was empty, sir.  The eyewitnesses at the site saw no one exiting the house.”

Pulson; his two cents in: “We went over that house with a fine-tooth comb.  The house wasn’t manufactured locally but it sure in hell wasn’t--” Pulson looks at me for a second.  “--made in Kansas.”

Traynor: “The Reverend has been putting a lot of pressure on the mayor for reforms.”  (Read: crap flows downhill and I’m stuck without a shovel.)  “This whole Dorothy angle is giving the Rainbowers more and more leverage--”

Fancy that: Idea clicks.  Setup gone wrong?  A mock Dorothy landing--only some poor Gillie errand boy got clipped by the house?  Is the Reverend of Hearts and Rainbows pulling a fast one? 

“Sir, I’d like to branch out and feel out the Rainbowers.  I know a few of them who might want to help out.”  I could feel my heart pounding.  I had turned away from them when my momma died and they in turn branded me a traitor.  Kansas forever lost.  You’ll never see your momma again. 

“Carefully,” the Chief said.  “The Rainbowers are powerful.”

I knew that with all my heart.  Eight years old and they had destroyed my world . . .   


* * *


Just a kid then, but I knew I loved her.  Marilisa.  The girl/woman I  tried to find in every woman I met.  Marilisa . . . lost her when I left the Rainbowers.  Her parents were devote and they had plans for their daughter.  I hadn’t seen her in twenty years.  But I knew her history, I had kept track of her life.  It was time to face it all.

221 Ozma Place.  Neat little bungalow on the near southside.  Quiet neighborhood; birds singing, sun bright.  Goose-bumps on my arms. 

Brass knocker in the shape of a heart.  Two raps.  Count seconds.  Count heartbeats.  The door cracks open, light and shadow sweeping across the face.  That face.  I’d have known her anywhere.

“Yes?” Her eyes are emerald, hair a rich auburn; my heart jack hammering.

I take out my badge and ID.  I watch her eyes freeze on the ID name.  She looks up; storms across her face.  “Denkie?”  Softly; a breath.

“Hello Marilisa.” 

“Denkie . . .” She looks back at the ID.  “Sgt. Denkins.  You shouldn’t be here.” Her eyes dart past me, searching. 


“We need to talk.”

“It’s about the house--I can’t talk about it.”  She makes to close the door.  I jam it with a shoe and push my way in.  “Get out!  If they see you--”

“Who?”  I grab her by the arm and swing her around.  “Look at me!  Who?  The Reverend?”  My eyes take in her living room and stop dead at the altar.  Same as any believer would have-- except for the gossamer costume hanging beside it.  “Your parents’ idea,” I say, letting her go.  “They wanted you to be a Rainbow Maiden.”

“Yes!”  Marilisa lights a cigarette with shaking hands.  “It’s my honor to serve--”

“Cut the bullshit!  I know what the Maidens do.  But you?  How . . . how can you--”

Angry, defiant, proud--through smoke her eyes flare: “You don’t know me!  We were just kids!  Your dad killed himself and your momma went crazy.  You never believed!  Now after all these years you come back into my life and . . .”  She begins to sob and I try to hold her.  She pushes me off.  “Just go away!  Go away!”

I stand outside her house and I can feel a cold wind at my back--as if an old door to a dark and icy room had just opened. 



* * *


The Emerald City Tribune, May 14, 59
Religious Briefs


Thousands Attend Rainbow Service


The Temple of Hearts and Rainbows saw record attendance at last night’s special service.  Bathed in multi-colored spotlights, The Reverend of Hearts and Rainbows TM opened by proclaiming the start of a new era where “The wickedness of greed and corruption will be swept clean as by a rainbow colored sword!” His Holiness then brought forth just such a sword and aimed it in the direction of City Hall.  His words plainly directed toward the mayor and his policies.  “They have betrayed HER trust!  They have corrupted and stolen our rightful heritage!”  The congregation erupted in spontaneous calls for reform until His Holiness raised his shined and buffed arms.  The spotlights went out and in the darkness the congregation began a low chant.  One single spotlight came on, illuminating The Reverend, and he smiled.  He held up his heart watch and said softly in a microphone: “I have seen Dorothy.  She has returned.”  The congregation dissolved into a mass of sobbing, weeping, and praying believers.  “She has come to save our Oz and lead us to the Land of Kansas, where life and love is eternal.”

The service ended with a massive recruitment drive and by all accounts the Church of The Holy Heart and Rainbow is expected to triple its membership by the week’s end.

The mayor, upon hearing of the service, was quoted as saying: “My old friend is crazy.  Simple as that.  I feel bad for him.  He needs help.”


* * *


A long black sedan idling at the curb.  Tinted windows.  Emerging from the back, two very large goons.  Figure Temple Boys, watching the goods, or a tail I hadn’t been noticing.  I catch Marilisa at the window, eyes wide, blinking, gone behind a curtain.

These boys mean business.  Bulges under the arms.  They come up, purposeful, body language saying: “We eat wiseguys for breakfast.”

“I’m a cop,” I say, but it’s a Big Whoop So What? on them. 

“The boss wants to have a conversation,” says the bigger of the two--Winkie bloodline somewhere in all that bigness. Gotta be.

“I’m busy.”  I make towards my unmarked.  A ham-sized hand grabs my arm.  I swing in, knee to the groin, drawing my .45.  The guy isn’t even winded. Cold steel raps at the back of my head and for a second all I see are rainbows.  Then there’s the click of a hammer going back.  Buddy boy’s in a hurry.  I drop my piece.  “Guess I’m not THAT busy.”

Wedged in between the boys and only five words since getting in: my “Who?” and the big guy’s “Shut up!”  I eye their suits--fancy dressers, uptown threads for downtown minds.  Then it clicks.  These aren’t Temple Dandies.  I smile.  We’re off to see the mayor. 

“Nice cologne,” I say, still smiling.  “What dunghill did you roll in?”  Always be polite to your enemies, my dad taught me.  The big guy elbows the side of my head. Stars and rainbows for a second.  So much for paternal wisdom.

We take the long way around--using the new super highway (Goodbye Yellow Brick Road!) that had just been completed by The Oz Construction Company (OCC).  Fast, clean and convenient--the modern road for modern times!  Old rumor: Straw Man had a hand in giving the contract to OCC.  Think a second cousin--Prez and CEO--saw some nepotism?  Yeah, that and a hefty donation to the “city” fund . . .

My goon keepers are mum.  Pretty countryside slides by.  Damn fine car, damn fine--SMOOTH--ride.  We leave the ‘burbs behind and climb up into the hill country; reminds me to get out more.  The city ain’t no place to spend summer.

The mayoral summer digs finally appears--whitewashed, sprawling, highbrow pretensions, low brow effect.  Neo-Wiz Gothic.  It spoke loud: “I’m the mayor!  I do things MY WAY!”

The sedan crawls to a stop.  More goons, but dressed casual, lounging around the frontdoor.  No smiles as I pass by--just hooded eyes and guys shifting their pieces . . .

“Ah, a member of our esteemed Police Department.”  This from the gloom in the main parlor.  I know that voice.  He comes closer, entering the light from a large undraped window.  CL himself.  The Cowardly Lion.  Top aide, bodyguard, and problem solver for the Straw Man.  He stands big, flatfooted, stuffed into a stylish three-piece Emerald Way suit.  He’s greying about the whiskers, but not bad for a beast in his eighties.  “Sgt. Denkins I presume?  Welcome to Scarecrow Manor.”

“Nice pad.”  I do a swivel head look.  There’s a life-size painting of Hizzhonor, wizard robes and all, above the walk-in fireplace.  Faux winged monkeys carved on columns.  Wiz images on archways.  Dorothy and Toto in stained glass at the end of the parlor.

The Lion bows his head slightly.  “I am glad it meets your approval.”  He waves a paw.  “Shall we?  The mayor awaits.”

I follow his swaying tail to an open set of double doors.  He waves me through.  A soft click behind me as the doors close and I’m alone in a richly furnished study.  I stand before a large polished desk, neat, tidy, a single phone, a gold Toto paperweight.  There’s a high-backed leather chair that’s turned away.

 “Greetings and felicitations, Sgt. Denkins.”  The chair turns and there he is--Hizzhonor, the Mayor of Emerald City, Unofficial ruler of Oz, the Honorable Mr. Scarecrow.  Immaculate.  Finely stitched.  Smoothly bald.  Dressed in the finest suit money can buy.  He smiles broadly though his eyes remain hard; painted mouth and black buttons on a doll’s face.  He smells faintly of fresh straw.  “A most propitious meeting, would you not agree?  I have been perusing reports of your investigatory endeavor and I must say that you have so far proven to be quite worthy of your new promotion.  I congratulate you, sir!”

I’m standing there, not a chair in sight, rocking slightly on the balls of my feet, wondering why the hell is he kissing my ass.  “Uh, thank you sir, but--”

The mayor picks an imaginary bit of straw from his sleeve.  “But you are wondering why I have sent for you?  Yes, to the business at hand.  We have something in common, Sgt. Denkins.  A certain situation that needs correction.”

“The Reverend.”

Hizzhonor laughs--controlled, perhaps even timed.  He shakes his head.  “Bravo, Sgt. Denkins.  You are quite astute.  I can see why Chief Traynor sings your praise.  Yes, precisely--the Reverend.  He is a threat to Emerald City.  He is a threat to Oz.  You must think me cruel to harbor such thoughts about a man whom I considered a dear friend.  A bosom companion.  A founding member of our new nation.”  The mayor hangs his head--figure he’s trying to work up a tear or two.  And there it is--a small one that he dabs away with an embroidered hankie. 

“I’m already looking into the Reverend.  He’s well guarded and his followers are tight-lipped--”

“I know of your connection to the church.” He lets that hang in the air for a moment.  I don’t even blink.  “An unfortunate connection by all accounts.”

“What do you want?”  It comes out impatient and he knows that a nerve has been hit.  He gives me that painted smile again. 

“To the point.  I do appreciate your candor.”  His smile fades and I get a good look at the real scarecrow: ruthless, ambitious, cold and calculating.  “I can give you your heart’s desire.  In return, I want the Reverend brought low.  I want him and his church scattered to the four winds.”

My heart’s desire . . . Marilisa.  My heart’s desire . . . vengeance for my father, redemption for my mother.  To the fours winds.  

I close my eyes.  My hands are balled up tight, fingernails cutting deep.  I can hardly breath. I open my eyes and met his dead gaze. No way in hell—

I nod slowly. 

“Splendid, I knew you would see it my way.”

And with that “splendid” it’s over, the Straw Man swivels away, the doors behind me click open and The Cowardly Lion beckons.

Walking side by side through that vast parlor, CL says: “I hope the conversation was to your liking.”

Stopping, sizing up the beast: he’d spent damn near 50 years trying to make people forget the “Cowardly” part of his name.  By reputation he had succeeded, but old legends die hard.  Looking into his dark shifting eyes, I know that the Cowardly Lion still existed; buried, out of sight, shielded by bluster and bravado and sheer will power.

“What’s the Reverend have on the Straw Man?” 

CL blinks, shrugs:  “What do you think the mayor fears most of all?

I start to give the standard answer: Fire.  But it’s too pat.  Too much a part of the legends they hide behind.  I smile slowly.  “Stupidity.”

CL gives me a strange little smile in return.  He puts a large paw on my shoulder.  “I shall never underestimate you again.  There is something about you--a purpose, a subtle style.  You are a man, I think, that gets his way.”  He directs me to the frontdoor.  “Cletus and Pook will return you to the city.  Have a good evening.”

The two goons are waiting by the sedan, arms crossed, looking bored.  I turn back to the door but CL is already gone.  I wave to Cletus and Pook.  “Okay boys, how about we stop off for ice cream?  My treat.”

Cletus and Pook did not have the gift of gab, but I let it slide and enjoyed the view as we flew through the countryside.

 Ruminations: The Straw Man wanted his old friend TM toppled from his Holy Seat; The Straw Man was putting pressure on the PD to wrap up the Falling House homicide yesterday;  The Straw Man is ambitious and has ties with Esperelda’s Westies. The Straw Man can give me my heart’s desire.

 Questions: The house victim was a Glinda soldier--what was he doing in West Winkie territory with all that pure grade rainbow?  The Westies and Easties are killing each other off at an accelerated rate with the Westies having an edge, if they win, next stop Glinda and total control of organized crime in Oz--who really runs the Winkies?  Esperelda’s no genius.  Rainbow junkie or not, Glinda’s still got the brains and the guts.  What connection does the Church of Hearts and Rainbows have with Glinda’s racket?

Scenario: The Reverend TM and Glinda vs. The Straw Man and Esperelda????

Not a pretty sight--if either party gets their way.

No answers by the time we pull alongside my unmarked.  I toss Cletus a five-spot tip.  He smiles and finger-pokes it into his mouth as they drive off. 

Marilisa’s bungalow is locked up tight and dark.   Thinking: leave a note.  Stupid. 

It’s a long drive back to my apartment.  I’m flying in the dark now.  No landmarks recognized.  Over enemy territory . . .

***


Three story walk-up in a fading part of the city--middle class long gone, low rent transient trade passing through; all-night liquor stores and pawn shops replacing corner grocers; junkies and whores replacing kids playing kickball.  Says it all about the state of my soul.  My second wife had kept the house and a season in the suburban sun.  I got dirty rain and garbage filled alleyways.  No place like home.

The hopped up Munch stares up at me from the stairs.  A baleful eye; dwindling:  “Saw a ghost,” he says slurring, showing stained and broken teeth. “Went up, up, up, lookin’ fer ya.”

I reach for my piece.  Work the slide while the Munch grins--flip him a coin for the tip: I’m a soft touch all the way. 

I take the stairs slow.  It’s dark and smells of stale air, bad cooking and old urine.  Breathing through my mouth, trying to keep the .45 steady, I come to the door.  Ear against the wood; nothing but my own heart hammering.   Down the hall--someone is yelling in a strong Quadling accent.  A slap.  Sobs.  Back to the door; it’s been jimmied but carefully.  Count: ONE TWO THREE--

I come in low, two-handed grip on the .45, sectioning the room like I had been taught in the academy.  I move slow into the bathroom.  I move back into the room.  No sign of an intruder.  Everything is the same--messy, but messy like I left it. 

And then on the bed--a bulky envelope.  I open it.  And sit down on the bed.  The missing 70 year-old WIZ file and a note in an unfamiliar hand: “If THEY have their way, all is lost for Oz.  This may help to stop them.”

Over enemy territory, but now I have a bomb . . .






(To be continued)


(With apologies to Frank Baum and James Ellroy)