The Spy Who Played Them All

It can certainly be said that to a portion of the American people, President Donald Trump is the most reviled man in America. In the April 2017 issue of Vanity Fair Editor Graydon Carter called him “a preening narcissist who takes himself terribly seriously…” to which I ask the simple questions: What presidents of recent years haven’t been narcissistic? Nor, as the most powerful man in the free world, taken themselves terribly seriously? Doesn’t it kind of go with the territory?

At one point in his editorial, he says, “When the dust settles, the real history will begin… in the end, proper historians and serious journalists will descend in droves to mop up the lies, the half-truths, and the criminality.” Then, maybe we should start with you.

On page 85 of the April 2017 edition, you have “The Kremlin Connection” by Howard Blum in your Letters From London section. It’s about the “Golden Showers” dossier. It reads like a John Le Carré novel. Our hero, Christopher Steele, ex- Cambridge Union president, ex-head of M.I.6 Moscow field agent, ex-head of M.I.6’s Russia desk, ex-adviser to British Special Forces on capture-or-kill ops in Afghanistan, etc., follows a trail marked by “…hair raising concerns. The allegations of financial, cyber, and sexual shenanigans (that) would lead to a chilling destination: the Kremlin had not only been cultivating supporting and assisting Donald Trump for years, but also has compromised the tycoon sufficiently to be able to blackmail him.” Steele compiled the dossier

Glenn Simpson, a former investigative reporter, had been hired as Fusion GPS to compile an opposition-research dossier on Donald Trump. While following various leads of his own, he made a call to London and Orbis Business Intelligence, LTD who put him in contact with Steele. He paid Steele and estimated $12,000 to $15,000 a month (plus expenses) to dig up the dirt on Trump. According to Blum, Stele “threw himself into his new mission. He could count on an army of sources whose loyalty and information he had bought and paid for over the years. He filled his memos to Simpson with comments from “Source A, a senior Russian Foreign Ministry figure; Source B, a former top level intelligence officer still active in the Kremlin; Source E, an ethnic Russian and close associate of Republican US presidential candidate Donald Trump.

The list was impressive, as was the information they turned over. So impressive, in fact, that when Sen. John McCain got wind of it, he sent David J. Kramer, a former State Department official to Heathrow to pick up a copy of the report. He was even ordered to use “Moscow Rules” (I told you this read like a John Le Carré novel) with a copy of the Financial Times tucked under his arm and word codes.

On December 9th, 2016, McCain and FBI Director James Comey handed President Trump the 35-page report. In the course of the meeting, Comey had to come forth with the fact that the report was a well-crafted piece of fiction. It had been written to prove to the new president, who was going against tradition by not taking daily intelligence briefings, that fictitious and spurious information could be out there that he, the president, would need to keep abreast of.

McCain’s bubble was burst. The senator would “later issue a statement that amounted to little more than a hapless shrug.” However, because the dossier was presented to President Trump, BuzzFeed ran with the story, posted the entire 35-page report and every anti-Trumper took it for gospel. Comey knew it was fake, but never came out publicly to say so. (Maybe one of the myriad of reasons he got fired.) It fueled the on going federal investigations.

But, I love the closing paragraph of the article: “Time to think is dangerous. And with the new president now ensconced in the White House, a man whose actions and reputation remain tangled up in a morass of disturbing speculations, the nation has, in effect, gone to ground, too. The concerns and questions escalate day after troubling day. With an intelligence community fighting its own secret war against a president who has time after time vilified it, the answer may soon be revealed. But for now all the nation can do is wait with tense anticipation for the congressional and intelligence-agency investigations to play out, for the high-stakes chase started by a lone ex-spy to move forward toward its conclusion and into history, for the clarity that will tell the American people it’s finally save to come in from the cold.”

For those of you who didn’t get it…. John Le Carré wrote one of the finest spy novels ever, called THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD.

Punning aside, look at that closing paragraph. “Disturbing speculation”… whose? Not the president’s. He knows the story is a fake. Only the fools who believe that the story is true are disturbed by it. And why shouldn’t the president vilify the intelligence community for allowing a fake story to remain unchallenged when they knew the case to be the opposite. And what’s going to be the outcome of all the investigations???? Nothing except a waste of tax-payers’ money.

But what I find really interesting were the crimes that were actually committed in the story. The “Golden Showers” dossier was a fake. It was known to be a fake from the get-go. And yet, Christopher Steele was able to con Glenn Simpson and the Democratic donors who backed him out of $15,000 a month (plus expenses) while he sat back some where, read a whole bunch of John Le Carré novels and came up with the fake backstory to match the fake front one. (I would have chosen Marbella, Spain. There are some nice little sidewalk cafés there where you can really dig your teeth into a good piece of spy fiction while sipping some chilled Spanish Riojo.)

But the real story, the one that everyone missed was the real spy thriller that transpired right under everyone’s noses. Smiley couldn’t have manufactured it better. Look….Steele, the lone, ex-spy, creates a perfect piece of fiction sprinkled with real life people. Only he knows it’s fiction. However to some of the people reading it, it’s the gospel, like an old KGB man who now runs a certain world power.

According to Blum’s article, “Oleg Erovinkin – a former F.S.B. (new version of the KGB) general and a key aid to Igor Sechin, a former deputy prime minister who know heads Rosneft, the giant Russian oil company, and who name is scattered with incriminating innuendo through several memos — was found dead in his car the day after Christmas. The F.S.B., according to Russian press reports, ‘launched a large-scale investigation’, but no official cause of death has been announced. Was this the price Erovinkin paid for having apparent similarities to Steele’s Source B, “a former top level intelligence officer still active in the Kremlin”? And no less ominous, after both Steele and U.S. intelligence officials made their cases for the Kremlin’s involvement in the election hackings, the F.S.B. arrested two officer in the agency’s cyber-wing and one computer security expert, charging them with treason. The Russian espionage agency was said to have burst into a meeting of the deputy director of its cyber-activities , placed a bag over his head, and marched him of to a destination unknown. Were these three the sources that Steele relied on?”

But Steele didn’t rely on any sources. The whole dossier and the steps taken to put it together were a fabrication… a figment of Steele’s imagination… unless,… unless he was gunning for old enemies. James Bond couldn’t have done it better. Steele, the ex-M.I.6 operative, created a piece of fiction that took care of old Moscow enemies and the current manifestation of the KGB, took care of them for him. Right out of Smiley’s People. Good-bye Karla. This ex-spy played everyone. He conned the anti-Trump faction into paying him a butt-load of money while he created a piece of fiction and he conned the F.S.B. into eliminating a slew of Russian “informers” mentioned in it. (We only have Steele’s word that the “sources” in his dossier were people he had spent years cultivating and not former M.I.6 enemies.) Brilliant. And BuzzFeed, Vanity Fair, The New York Times, The Washington Post, et al, played right into his hands and outed them all. When I say he played everyone…. he played everyone.

If I ever write a John Le Carré style novel… I have got to save this scenario for the plot line.

 

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QED

 

When an author writes a short story, he/she is taking a real chance that no one will ever read it, even if they have a good relationship with a magazine editor.  The editors are hamstrung by their momentary thematic needs.  You may have written a terrific story, but the editor simply has no place to put it among the other stories that have been earmarked for that particular issue.  Case in point.  The following story got a great review from the editor of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, but it did not fit thematically with the other stories she had chosen for the issue upon which she was working.  The result is…. you get to read it and her readers won’t (unless they find it here).

QED*
*Quod erat demonstrandum

 

By
Eric B. Ruark

 

Sheriff Tracy Leigh Hyers sat in her parked cruiser in the shade of one of the large white oak trees that artistically lined the side of the road going over her notes. After a few moments, she looked up from her electronic notepad and down the street passed the manicured lawns to the murder victim’s house at 911 Sparrows Drive.
Norma James, a 64-year old widow, had been found murdered in her bed in one of the county’s most up-scale neighborhoods. She had been bound and gagged with duct tape and slowly strangled to death. Her bedroom had not been ransacked, however it appeared that some jewelry had been taken. The jewelry box on her dresser had been found opened but not tossed, as if the perpetrators had been looking for a specific piece. Whoever committed the crime left behind all her credit cards and an un-cashed personal check for $50,000 written to her by her next door neighbor, Dr. Nancy Tatum who had been on vacation at the time of the murder. Mrs. James had been found by one of the Deacons from her church, Joseph Miller, and one of the members of the White Oak Estates Security contingent, Jeremy McGrath.
As all the locals knew (and Tracy was one),White Oak Estates had been the brain child of Arnie Fleishmann. The Fleishmanns had emigrated to the United States sometime around the Civil War and through hard work and good business sense had managed to amass several thousand acres before the turn of the 20th century. They owned a lot of good farmland and a white oak forest which they logged from time to time. However, two world wars and time reduced the once large Fleishmann family to Arnie who was unmarried and childless.
Rather than let the county, state and federal governments take and sell his property for death taxes, Arnie came up with the idea of turning his remaining holdings into a model residential community. True to his roots, he designed White Oak Estates in the shape of a Star of David with each point of the star intersecting one of the county’s main roads. The houses were build along the arms. He kept small portions of the original white oak forest in the small triangles within the points of the star, and at the center of the star, he constructed a 9-hole golf course, hiking/biking trails, and several ponds which he stocked with various game fish. The parcels were large and the houses pricey. The houses were built in pairs around a shared driveway in the shape of a capital “Y”. This sharing allowed the front lawns to be even bigger. A privacy hedge separated each pair from the others.
Tracy put her notepad on stand-by then eased her petit, 5’2” frame out of the county marked car and walked towards the shared driveway between 911 and 913. As she approached the edge of the hedge that demarked the beginning of 913’s property, she noticed two, large, gray and white Pit Bulls gnawing on leather bones the size of a grown man’s femur. Since 913 was her destination, Tracy straightened up and pulled her straw, Smokey Bear hat a little more forward on her head.
As she approached the edge of their front yard, the dogs stopped chewing and turned their undivided attention towards her. She stopped. They didn’t move. Then she took several more steps forward. Suddenly, both dogs sprang up and sprinted at her at top speed. Tracy almost balked. The dogs were somewhere around 60 pounds each, and fast. Their bodies were thick with muscle. She could see that they were not young but that didn’t lessen the gut twisting fear that involuntarily seized her as they rocketed towards her at top speed.
Six feet away from her the dogs came to a sudden stop and stood as if they were on point for the Westminster Kennel Club Show, their bobbed ears erect and turned towards her like a canine radar that had acquired its target.
Tracy stood nonchalantly facing the dogs with her left hand resting on the front of her utility belt and her right hand hanging easily by her side as if she were contemplating a quick draw of her Glock 9 mm.
“They won’t hurt you,” a young, female voice said.
Tracy looked around and saw a young girl about sixteen years old sitting in the shade on the steps at the side of the house, her thumbs deftly moving across the face of the ubiquitous cell phone that all the kids seemed to carry, now-a-days. She was wearing an old blue T-shirt with an Angry Birds character on the front and a pair of white denim short-shorts that emphasized her long legs. “They sure scared the Hell out of me,” Sheriff Hyers said.
The young girl laughed. “I guess they’re supposed to. But once you get to know them, Montgomery and Kitchener are just big, loveable cuddle-bears.” She stood up, tucked the cell phone into the right back pocket of her shorts (it only fit about two-thirds of the way into her pocket), and walked across the lawn to the dogs. The dogs looked at her. She wiggled her fingers and the dogs lunged at her. She knelt down and let the dogs cover her face, hands and arms with slobbery kisses. She scratched their ears then wiggled her fingers again and they immediately ran back to their leather bones.
“What did you just do?” Tracy asked.
“They’re trained to respond to hand signals,” the young girl said.
“Are they yours?”
“No. I’m just the dog sitter.”
“My name’s Tracy,” Sheriff Hyers said extending her hand.
“I’m Meghan,” the young girl said shaking it.
While they shook, Tracy gave Meghan a long, hard look. With her hazel eyes, Meghan was pretty enough to be a model. She had long, straight black hair and light skin that had never seen a pimple. (Tracy remembered her own battle with acne at Meghan’s age.) She also had one of those open personalities that engendered immediate trust. If Tracy could feel it, she could only imagine what the dogs must have felt.
“They are really sweet and well trained and won’t cross the grass line. So as long as you stay on the sidewalk or in the drive nothing will happen. They’ll just follow you.”
“If you say so,” Tracy said.
“And anyway, I’m here to control them. Is there something I can do for you?”
“I’m actually here to see, Dr. Tatum,” Tracy said.
“Okay,” Megan said. “Just follow me.” She led Tracy up the steps to the side porch. On her way up, Tracy noticed a “FOR SALE” sign leaning against the house, but hidden by the shrubbery. Meghan went inside and came back a few moments later. “Dr. Tatum is in her study. She said for you to come in. I’ll show you the way.
Tracy followed Meghan into 913 and across a sun room to an office just off the corridor that led to the living room. Tracy was impressed. The house was neat and clean and had been furnished by someone with decidedly conservative tastes from some of the better furniture stores.
According to her notes (courtesy of Google), Dr. Tatum was in her mid-sixties and had received her first PhD. in British Literature from Trinity College in Hartford, CT. Then took a teaching position at the University of Adelaide in Australia where she received a second PhD. in American Literature. While there, she met and married her husband, Peter (deceased) who had served in Viet Nam with a division of the Australian Canine Corps. Peter Tatum had been an executive in the international banking department of the National Australian Bank. This allowed Dr. Tatum to follow her husband’s career by taking teaching positions in such cities as Madrid, Beirut (before the troubles), Tokyo and finally Washington D.C. When Peter passed, Dr. Tatum became the head of the English Department at a small liberal arts college that catered to many of the children of the foreign diplomats assigned to the US.
Dr. Tatum was waiting for her in her office. As Tracy entered, she took note of the orderly bookshelves and the layout of the computer desk. After the initial introductions, Meghan went back to the dogs and Tracy asked Dr. Tatum what she could tell her about the events surrounding the murder.
“I don’t know what I can tell you,” Dr. Tatum said. “I was away for the week. I drove down to Ocean City for some R and R. I hired Meghan to stay at my house while I was at the shore. My dogs really love her and she loves them. To be perfectly honest, she is the only person I would trust to take care of them properly. That’s why I like to have her around even when I’m at home. It frees me to get some extra work done.”
Sheriff Hyers looked at Dr. Tatum. She saw a woman with black hair (dyed) and a pixie haircut that highlighted her large, doe-like dark eyes. She was wearing a blue blazer, white oxford shirt and mid-calf twill skirt. With the accessorizing scarf, she looked as if she had just stepped out of an L.L. Bean catalog. “What can you tell me about a $50,000 check made out to the victim by you.”
“What would you like to know? I lost a law suit to Norma and I took the check over to her before I left for vacation.”
“What kind of suit?” Tracy asked.
“She was scared of my dogs and won a Mental Distress suit.”
“And you took the check over to her?”
“Of course. We were next door neighbors. No point in my acting uncivilized. As Robert Ingersoll said, ‘The greatest test of courage on earth is to bear defeat without losing heart.’ She won. I lost. I paid.”
Dr. Tatum sat back and crossed her legs, and Tracy thought: All she needs is a cigarette in a holder or a martini to complete the image. “How well did you know Mrs. James?”
“Not well, really,” Dr Tatum answered. “We were next door neighbors, but my dogs kept us apart. Norma was deathly afraid of them.”
“Was there a reason?”
“None. My dogs never crossed the driveway. She was totally safe the entire time, but couldn’t see past her phobia. Sometimes she was so bad that Meghan had to carry her groceries in for her. After she won the mental distress law suit, I put my house on the market. Better to move away and start over.”
“Have you noticed anything out of the ordinary around here, recently?” Tracy asked changing the subject.
“What do you mean by ‘out of the ordinary’?” Dr. Tatum asked.
“Anyone strange hanging around? Strange cars driving through the neighborhood? That kind of thing.”
“Most assuredly not,” Dr. Tatum said. “Had I, I would have called our security. They are actually quite good at what they do.”
“Aren’t you worried?” Tracy asked.
“These houses came with a built-in security system that runs through our central community security office. But I’ve never used it. I have Montgomery and Kitchener,” Dr. Tatum said. “I believe you met them outside. Anyone foolish enough to attempt to break in here would suffer severe consequences. Despite what happened to Norma, I feel totally safe.”
“You do?”
“Why not? My late husband had been with the Australian Canine Corps and he taught me how to train dogs using seemingly mundane finger signals. I could be bound and gagged but unless someone bagged my hands, I could order Montgomery and Kitchener to do practically anything.”
After a few more questions about the neighborhood and Norma James in general, Sheriff Hyers thanked Dr. Tatum then left. When she went back outside, Tracy found Meghan again sitting on the steps texting whomever and the dogs quietly gnawing at their toys. As she moved from Dr. Tatum’s residence to Norma James’, the dogs picked up their heads, but when she crossed the driveway and out of their territory, they ignored her and returned to their chewing.
Tracy walked up the pathway on the other side of the shared drive towards the side entrance of 911. She stopped at the bottom of the stairs and noted that the two houses, 911 and 913, were mirror images of each other. Before taking down the crime scene tape and entering the house, Tracy pulled out her electronic notepad and jotted down her conversation with Dr. Tatum and then accessed her notes on the McGrath interview:

“We don’t get those kind of calls very often,” McGrath had said. McGrath was a big man, six feet tall and toping the scales somewhere around 230 pounds. But to Tracy’s mind, none of it looked soft.
“But you get them,” Tracy said trying to draw him out.
“Last winter we got a call from one of the morning newspaper deliverers. He noticed that Mrs. Brownstein’s papers hadn’t been picked up for a couple of days, so he got out of his car to see if the resident had left a note for him on the side door that he might have missed. While walking around, he thought he heard water running so he called us. We broke in and found the old woman stuck in her tub. She had fallen and broken her hip and was not able to reach up to shut the water off. It wasn’t a pretty sight. She had been in the water for a couple of days and was nearly dead from exposure. We were just in time.
“How’s she doing?” Tracy asked.
“She had to sell her place and move to someplace that was more elderly friendly. It’s too bad. She was a real nice lady.”
“Implying that some of the residents at White Oaks are not.”
McGrath shrugged.
“What about the deceased?”
“I never had any trouble with her, but she really gave that poor Dr. Tatum a real run for her money.”
“In what way?”
“Sued her a couple times over the dogs.”
“Did you ever have any trouble with the dogs?”
“Never.”
“Tell me how you came to find Mrs. James’ body.”
“Well, it was about 8 p.m. on that Sunday. I was on patrol when I got a call from our dispatcher that there was a fellow over at 911 Sparrows Drive who wanted to break in. He said that he thought there was something seriously wrong with the occupant. So I drove over. The house was locked and the security system engaged. There was no sign of a break in. but that Deacon fellow was real adamant, so I put my shoulder to the door.”
“You don’t have pass keys?”
“No.”
“Then what happened?”
“We looked around the lower floor. Nothing seemed to be out of place. Then we went up stairs. When we got to the bedroom door and saw her on the bed, the Deacon wanted to rush right in, but I stopped him. It was obvious she was dead and she was bound and gagged and I didn’t think you wanted us to contaminate a crime scene.
“How could you tell she was dead?”
McGrath tapped his left arm and Tracy heard the click of fingernails on plastic. “Lost it in Afghanistan. I was a Medic. I’ve seen dead people before. They have a look about them. It kinda gets burned into your memory in a way you wish you could forget.”
“Then what did you do?”
“Well, I kept the Deacon out of the room then I walked directly up to the bed to check for a pulse. I knew there wouldn’t be one, but just to make sure. Then I called it in and took the Deacon down stairs to wait for the real police.”

Tracy had not been one of the first responders that night. Her commanding officer had added her to the investigative team a couple of days later as an extra pair of eyes. She would have like to have seen the place before the CSI people from the State had processed the scene. But they were good people and knew their business.
Tracy put her notepad back on stand-by then used the key she had signed out of the evidence locker to gain access to Norma James’ house. She was right about it being the mirror image of Dr. Tatum’s, the only difference being the décor and use. In stead of an office, Norma James had a crafts room. From the looks of it, she was obviously big into quilting.
Tracy walked upstairs to the bedroom. Except for the telltale signs of the fingerprint powder, the room looked exactly as it had when the medics removed Norma James body. Tracy walked over and looked down at the bed. Then she walked over to the dresser to examine where the techs thought someone had rifled through Mrs. James’ jewelry chest. Then she took out her electronic notepad and called up all the crime scene photos. She studied each one and compared each photo to its location in the room. Then she thumbed her notes to the Deacon Miller interview:

“Norma James had a phobia about dogs,” Deacon Miller had said in his slow southwestern drawl in response to Sheriff Hyer’s question. Deacon Miller was a tall man, close to six-six in Tracy’s estimation. He towered over her even sitting down in the interrogation room. She stood up so as not to feel like a child in his presence. There was something very down-home and folksy about him that Tracy liked. He had a pre-Santa Claus beard and was dressed like an extra in a John Wayne move right down to the black Stetson and Bolo tie with a sliver and turquoise slide. “Everyone in the church knew it. In fact, whenever we had church functions, we always made sure that Norma knew whenever the pets were going to be allowed to attend. That way she could ask the Pastor to excuse her.”
“She had to ask the Pastor to excuse her?” Tracy asked. She arched an eyebrow.
“Yes.” Deacon Miller paused. “I can see that you don’t understand. Our church is a small, nondenominational group. You might even go so far as to call it a cult. Don’t worry, we’re not afraid of that word. Christianity began as a cult so why should be worry about belonging to one.”
“Go on,” Tracy said.
“Well, we are very Bible oriented,” Deacon Miller explained. “We don’t do anything that’s not in the Bible.”
“Like the Amish up in Pennsylvania?”
“Don’t get me started on them.” Deacon Miller sat up straight and turned red. He looked as if he were about to start a tirade.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to distract you,” Tracy said, hoping her apology would calm him down.
“No… I’m sorry. You want to know about Norma. Well, one of our core beliefs comes from Hebrews 10:25 ‘not forsaking the assembling of yourselves together…’ We believe that it’s against the Bible to miss church.”
“Ever.”
“Ever,” Deacon Miller said nodding. “There is no excuse to not come to the House of God to worship on the given day that the Man of God has called an assembly. Our assemblies are on Friday nights and Sunday afternoons. That’s the main reason that I moved here from Arizona. When Norma didn’t show up for the Sunday service, our Pastor asked me to head on over to her house to see what was the matter. When I got there, I found her Lexus in the garage but when I tried the door, she didn’t answer. That was just plumb wrong so I called the security people and we broke in together and well… we found her body.”
“How did you know to call the security and not the police?”
“There was a sign on the door.”

Tracy left the bedroom and walked down stairs to the utility bathroom to examine the window one the officers on the scene that night suggested the perp or perps had entered through. She ran her fingers over the edge of the sill where the security locks and sensors were. She didn’t feel anything out of the ordinary. Then she opened the window and looked down at the still visible foot prints directly beneath the window. They were all size 12 and showed the imprint of a worn Maine gumshoe. Sitting down on the toilet lid, she thumbed through her notes from her second interview with Jeremy McGrath:

Turk Murphy owned a small bar that looked out over the falls on the river. Turk was a retired fireman and most of his clientele were the volunteer firefighters, police and EMTs from across the county. Tracy like the place. She liked the people. She had grown up with most of them. She had seen them at their best and sometimes at their worst. Sometimes laughing it up with everyone, she felt like she was at one of her high school reunions. But on that night, she was counting on the relaxed atmosphere to help out in her investigation.
“Strange interrogation room,” McGrath had said sipping at his beer.
“Sometimes I find out more information here, than I can use in a hundred cases,” Tracy said playing with her diet soda. Even in his civvies, McGrath looked buff. Tracy hoped that her jeans and polo shirt would be less intimidating than her blue on blue uniform with the word “Sheriff” emblazoned in gold across her shoulders.
“Can you actually use anything you get here in a court of law?” McGrath asked.
“You’d be surprised,” Tracy answered.
“How can I help you?” McGrath asked.
“Just tell me, again, what you did on the night Mrs. James was killed.”
“Okay. The usual. That night I spent most of my time just driving around until the end of my shift.”
“Did you seen anything unusual?”
“No.”
“How easy is it for you to monitor the comings and goings of the folks who live in the Estates?”
“Not easy at all. There’s no way you can see all the entrances to the Estates while you’re in your car. Look.” McGrath took one of the bar napkins and drew a Star of David on it. “Because of the way the Estates are laid out, anyone cruising can only see two entrances at a time. And then, you have to be pretty close to them. Unless you are at one of these locations.” He pointed to the four intersections on the star. “And even then, you still have two entrances that are out of your line of sight.”
“Why were you the only car patrolling that night?”
“Budget cuts. We’ve never had a robbery there, so the powers that be decided that we didn’t need to keep two cars on the road at the same time.”
“But you drove by 911 that night.”
“Three or four times.”
“And you saw nothing out of the ordinary.”
“Everything was quiet. Mrs. James’ Lexus was in the driveway and most of her lights were out. Basically just the way the Deacon and I found it on Sunday.”
“You worked the late shift on Saturday. How come you were working the Sunday afternoon/evening shift?”
“One of the guys called in sick and most of the other guards were doing personal stuff. I was the only one who was free and I needed the overtime.”
Tracy took a drink. “How easy is it to break into one of the houses without setting off your security alarms?”
“It’s practically impossible.”
“Practically?”
“If the householder locks up according to the book, then no one can get in from the outside without setting off our alarm system.”
“But what if the owner doesn’t close up properly?”
“Then the potential thief has a chance.”
“Did Mrs. James close up properly?”
“According to our check she did.”
“What if I told you that one of the deputies found foot prints underneath that little bathroom window on the first floor. He thinks the perps entered that way.”
“Well, it could have been the point of entry if Mrs. James left the window unlocked. But even if she did, the system would have told her that the window wasn’t engaged when she turned it on before going to bed. When we ran our check, that house was locked up tighter than a drum.”
“Hypothetically… if the person was already inside before Mrs. James locked up, could they get out without setting off the alarm?”
“Yes. But they would have to know how.”
“Is it complicated?”
“No. Actually it’s very easy. All you have to do is hit the 2s on the security panel three times and you can open the door from the inside without setting off the alarm. The alarm reengages when the door closes. That allows someone to set their alarm and wait for a cab or a ride in case they have to go some where.”
“I remember seeing and Eddie Murphy movie where he uses a chewing gum wrapper to by-pass a window alarm system. Could someone have done that at Mrs. James’?”
“I saw that movie, too. And, no. Not from the outside. From the inside maybe, but then why would somebody already inside the house want to short circuit the window? I mean, they are already inside, right?”

Tracy locked up and replaced the crime scene tape when she left. She walked down the driveway. Meghan was still sitting on the steps to Dr. Tatum’s porch playing with her cell phone and the dogs were still worrying their, now, much smaller bones. As Tracy neared the sidewalk that fronted Dr. Tatum’s property, she expected the same reaction from Montgomery and Kitchener that had welcomed her arrival. When the dogs didn’t move, she turn and looked at Meghan who gave her a quick wave without looking up from her cell phone screen. Tracy walked back to her cruiser. Next stop, the county court house.

At the court house, Tracy looked up all the records on the law suits between Norma James and Dr. Tatum. To Tracy, the first suit seemed nothing more than a nuisance suit. According to the transcript, Norma James complained that every day when she went out to get her mail, Montgomery and Kitchener followed her to and from the mail box at the end of the shared drive way. Dr. Tatum pointed out that the dogs always remained on their side of the drive on their own grass and never even barked at Mrs. James. Dr. Tatum tried to explain just how well the dogs were trained. She even had an expert witness testify as to the effectiveness of the military-type training the dogs had had. But Judge Brenda Davis was obviously not a dog person. (She owned cats, if Tracy remembered correctly.) Mrs. James took the stand and tearfully testified how the dogs terrified her. She claimed that she couldn’t take a step out of her house without them staring her down or following her. She said that she felt like a prisoner in her own home.
The Judge ruled in Norma James’ favor and ordered Dr. Tatum to put up a fence between the two properties.
The second and third cases were over the fence. Dr. Tatum contracted with the Acme Fence Company to install a fence around the property. But when they tried, the White Oaks Owners Association countersued claiming that the fence violated their community standards. They compromised on allowing Dr. Tatum to install an invisible fence around her property.
The third case on file was for mental distress. Despite the invisible dog fence and the dog’s shock collars, they continued to follow Norma James to and from the mail box everyday. Norma was still very upset despite the fact that the dogs always remained on their side of the property line.
Judge Davis found in favor of the plaintiff and ordered Dr. Tatum to pay Norma James $100,000 for her mental anguish. Tracy made a couple of notes, then went back to her cruiser to drive over to the Acme Fence Company.

Donald Tapke opened the top drawer of an old filing cabinet and took out a well worn manila folder. “We’ve been working with Dr. Tatum for some time,” he said returning to his desk. “It’s all here.” He opened the folder, turned it around and slid it across is desk to Tracy. “She first contacted us about a year and half ago. Her next door neighbor had won a suit against her because of the dogs and the court ordered Dr. Tatum to put a fence up. I asked her to give me a copy of the court order. Court things are bullshit to deal with. There are so many “t”s to cross and “i”s to dot that I have to watch my own ass so as not to get caught in the middle.”
“So you’ve dealt with law suits before?”
“Not in New Jerusalem. No one ever called me to put in a fence there before.”
“New Jerusalem?”
“’Cause it was built by old man Fleishmann.”
“Be nice, Donald.” Tracy had known Donald from the first grade. She had watched him skin his knees and she had cheered him when he was the tight end for the High School football team. They were old friends… “How are the kids?”
“Mary Beth is cutting a new tooth and keeping us up nights. Donald Jr. is beginning to act too much like me to be comfortable…”
“What else can you tell me about this feud?” Tracy asked. She noticed that Donald didn’t balk at the word.
“Well, it started with the fence. We were originally going to install a wooden fence backed by chain link but we never got the chance.”
“Why not?”
“The fence had to go through zoning and the Oak Tree Estates Community Nazi Board of Whatever killed it in committee. Said that any fence violated community standards. Dr. Tatum went back to court to get a variance. But White Oak won and she was ordered to install an invisible fence. We installed it. She paid us and thanked us for the care we took of her lawn. I just wish all of my clients were a considerate as she was.”
Tracy took her time reading the various documents in Donald’s file. “Can you make copies of these for me?” she asked.
“Sure.” Donald stood up and took the folder to the copier.
“By the way, did you ever remove the fence?”
“No. Why?”
“Just a cop asking questions.” As he was making the copies, Tracy noticed Donald’s emerging paunch pushing against the buttons of his white work shirt. “Business must be good,” she said.
“How can you tell?” Donald asked.
“You’re getting fat.”

Tracy drove back to the station. On her way to her desk, she stopped by the single-cup coffee maker in the break room. She made herself a mug of coffee and took it with her. She was in the middle of adding a packet of hot chocolate to the steaming brew when Dr. Stephen Abbot, the county coroner knocked on her door.
“Chocolate in your coffee? Isn’t that a sacrilege or something?”
“You’re too ‘old school’, Stephen,” Tracy answered. She tried not to smile. Every time she saw Dr. Abbott, she couldn’t stop herself from thinking of the round face, bald head and round glasses of Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, one of her favorite characters from the old Muppet Show which she watched surreptitiously every now an again on her notepad whenever she needed a break to clear her mind. (The app was definitely NOT county approved.) “What’cha got?”
“The added results on Mrs. James.” He entered the office and placed the report on the desk in front of her.
Tracy took a sip of her coffee and opened the folder. “Any surprises?”
“Something that might interest you.,” Dr. Abbott answered. “You read the original report. The woman was bound and gagged with duct tape then repeatedly strangled with some kind of cord or strap. The marks on her neck indicate that the cord was tightened and released several times before the final coup de gras. I sent her bed clothes out to be tested. Those are the results.”
Tracy opened the folder and read the report. She put it down and sipped her chocolate coffee. “Dog dander?”
“Dog dander,” he said.
Tracy thanked Dr. Abbott then reached into her desk to fill out a request for a search warrant. After she filled it out, she walked the warrant down the hall to her boss, Commander Bill Kusaila.
Commander Kusaila was a remarkably thin man with one of those faces that people immediately forget except for his nose. To Sheriff Hyers, it looked like it was borrowed. The commander always reminded her of a thin Mr. Potato head with interchangeable features like he had put on that nose on that day to specifically hold his glasses at the proper height on his face. Funny looking or not, Tracy knew him for the top cop that he was and respected him above everyone else in the department.
She handed him her request for a search warrant. He adjusted his glasses on his nose and read the document. “You really like her for the crime?” he asked.
“I do,” Tracy answered.
“You know, Dave and Charlie haven’t finished running all the surveillance videos they picked up between here and Ocean City through facial recognition. $100,000 is sure a lot of motive.”
“I know,” she said.
“Well if you’re sure…”
“I am.”

Three days later, Tracy sat at her desk awaiting the arrival of her guests. The first to arrive were Meghan and her parents. She offered them some coffee/soda then escorted them down to the large interrogation room. A few moments later, Dr. Tatum arrived.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” she said, “but there was a minor delay at the college.”
“No problem,” Tracy said. “I just have a few more questions to ask the two of you…” she indicated Dr. Tatum and Meghan with a nod of her head… “and since Meghan is a minor, her parents have to be present.”
“”Questions about what?” Dr. Tatum asked.
“About your dogs,” Tracy answered.
“What about them?” Dr. Tatum asked.
“Tell me about them,” Tracy said.
“Where do you want me to start?”
“The beginning would be nice,” Tracy said.
“My husband was Australian and worked in the international banking division of a large Australian bank. His job took him all around the world. We didn’t have pets while on foreign station. Australia has severe quarantine requirements for importing animals and we didn’t think it was fair to the animals to subject them to that kind of stress.
“On our final station here in the United States, we broke down and bought Montgomery and Kitchener. Peter named them after British Field Marshals despite the fact that they were American Pit Bull Terriers. They were brothers in the same litter. To paraphrase Byron they possessed beauty without vanity, strength without insolence; courage without ferocity; and all the virtues of man without his vices.
“Peter trained them using the Australian Army hand signals. When he retired, we decided not to move back to Australia, not, at least, until the dogs passed. We looked around for a suitable place to live and discovered White Oak Estates with its large front and back yards and jogging/walking trails. We were close enough to Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia and only a couple of hours away from the shore. It was perfect. We bought 913 Sparrows Drive and Peter immediately set about training Montgomery and Kitchener never to cross the invisible line that separated the grass from the concrete on our front walk and from the asphalt on our driveway.”
“Meghan, when did you start dog-sitting for Dr. Tatum?” Tracy asked.
“I started dog sitting when I was eleven. At first it was only for the parents of the kids I went to school with when they went on vacations and such. Then all of a sudden I started getting calls from people that I didn’t know, people who had been told how good I was by the people I already dog sat for. Before I was allowed to take a job, my parents would always check out whoever called me. Then if Dad said that they were OK, I went to meet their dogs.”
“That’s right,” her father said.
“When did you start sitting for Dr. Tatum,” Tracy reiterated.
“A couple of years ago. I don’t remember exactly. I suppose I could get my bank account and check that way if you really want to know the exact date I started,” Meghan said.
“We can check that out later,” Tracy said. “Tell me about the dogs.”
“Montgomery and Kitchener. I remember the first time I saw them. My folks drove me over to Dr. Tatum’s and they were waiting for me in the front yard. Dr. Tatum was standing with them and they were sitting down. I walked up and Dr. Tatum explained that they were trained to hand signals and that right then they were on hold. She was going to release them and she wanted me to stand real still so they could come over and sniff me and get to know me. So I stood real still and she made this little movement with her fingers and all of a sudden both dogs butted into me with their back ends wagging and their whole bodies shaking. Dr. Tatum was really surprised. She said that she had never seen them take to anyone the way they took to me. So she taught me the hand signals and whenever I got the chance, she would allow me to come over to play with them.”
“Did you ever see them do things like other dogs… like chase cars or anything like that?”
“No. Montgomery and Kitchener are too well trained. In fact, they ignored every car except for Dr. Tatum’s.”
“They chased her car?”
“Oh, no. But they knew every time she was coming home. They used to walk over and sit by the door until she came in. Then they would be all over her, licking and wagging and brushing up against her like they were real happy to see her.”
“Did you ever see them follow Mrs. James?” Tracy asked.
“Not while I was there,” Meghan said. “Not that they didn’t want to, but when I was dog sitting, I never let them outside unattended. I would always go out with them and if I saw them heading towards Mrs. James, I would always signal them back and play with them to distract them from her.”
“On the night that Mrs. James was murdered, you were dog sitting, weren’t you?” Tracy asked.
“Yes,” Megan said. “Dr. Tatum took the week off. She was going down to the shore from Wednesday to Wednesday. She asked me if I could spend the nights and make sure that the dogs were taken care of during the day. My folks said OK.”
“So you started sleeping over on Wednesday night?”
“That’s right.”
“Where did you sleep.”
“Dr. Tatum has a guest room on the first floor. It’s right off the kitchen. There’s a futon and a desk in it and a TV so it’s real comfortable..”
“What about the dogs?”
“Monty and Kitchener are crate trained. Every night they would go to their crates to sleep. The doors of the crates are always open so the dogs can come and go as they please.”
“What if they have to go out in the night?” Tracy asked.
“They never do,” Meghan said.
“Never?”
“No. They go out after eating, do their business and come right back in. They were real good about that. I’d go out and clean up after them and put their pooh in the can in the garden.”
“Did they have to go out after eating on Saturday night, the night that Mrs. James was killed?”
“Yes.”
“When they went out, did you see anything unusual?”
“No. Nothing. The dogs did their business then came right back in. I put them in their crates and they lay right down. So I went to my room to watch TV.”
“What did you watch?”
“Not a lot,” Meghan said. “Saturday is the big college football day and I’m not into football. So, I did a lot of channel hopping until I went to sleep.”
“When did you take your house off the market?” Tracy asked turning to Dr. Tatum.
“I didn’t. It’s still on the market,” she answered.
“Then why did you hide the FOR SALE sign in the bushes?” Tracy asked.
“I didn’t,” Dr. Tatum answered.
“Did you move it?” Tracy asked Meghan.
“Sure. With Mrs. James dead, Dr. Tatum won’t have to move,” Meghan said.
“You’d really miss the dogs if they had to move, wouldn’t you,” Tracy said.
“Absolutely. I’m so glad they aren’t going anywhere,” the young teen said.
“But I’m afraid we are,” Dr. Tatum said. “That house had a lot of memories for me. Peter. Our last years together. But it’s time for me to move on. Find a place where Montgomery, Kitchener and I can live and have a little breathing room. Someplace where the neighbors won’t be intimidated by my pets.”
“But that means that I won’t be able to dog sit for you anymore,” Meghan said, her voice approaching a childish whine.
“I’m sure that you’ll find others to dog sit for,” Dr. Tatum said.
“It’s not the same.” Meghan voice took on a petulant tone.
“It won’t mean the same thing, will it,” Tracy said.
“No it won’t,” Meghan snapped.
“Meghan,” her father said trying to calm her down.
“It won’t,” she said with more vehemence.
“Especially after what you did for them,” Sheriff Hyers said.
“I took care of them,” Meghan said.
“I’m sure you did,” Tracy said in a very condescending tone.
“No. I really did. I really took care of them. Better than her.” Meghan snapped her head towards Dr. Tatum.
“I sincerely doubt that,” Dr. Tatum said.
“YOU ALLOWED THAT OLD WOMAN TO FORCE YOU TO PUT AN ELECTRIC COLLAR ON THE DOGS!” Meghan yelled.
“Meghan what are you saying,” her mother said.
“Meghan, don’t say another word,” her father said.
“Well, she did,” Meghan shot back. “Have you ever felt how painful one of those collars is? HAVE YOU??? No. Well, I did. I thought I was going to die and I wanted that old bitch to know what it felt like. So I put one on her only it didn’t work. I thought I had the collar on too loose, so I tightened it and tried again, and then again, one notch at a time so she would know.”
“Meghan, SHUT UP!” her father yelled. He turned to Sheriff Hyers. “Lawyer. Now!”
“That’s your prerogative,” Tracy said.
“NO I WON’T SHUT UP!” Megan shouted back. “You old people don’t know anything. There are people out there like Mrs. James who allow animals to be tortured. I see it all the time on the Internet. People send me photos of dogs who’ve had half their faces blown off by people who put firecrackers in their mouths. Videos of people throwing their dogs out of moving cars. All kinds of disgusting, hateful things. People are always saying that those people who hurt animals should be hurt the same way. Those people are only texting… but I did something about it!”
“Of course you did, Meghan,” Tracy said to the girl. Then she turned to Meghan’s parents. “I’m arresting your daughter for the premeditated murder of Norma James.” Tracy took a card out of her uniform breast pocket and literally read Meghan her rights then walked to the door, opened it and signaled for two officers and a matron from the Juvinile Division to come in to officially handcuff Meghan and take her away. When the room cleared, Tracy realized that Dr. Tatum was still sitting at the table.
“I can’t believe it,” Dr. Tatum said. “Meghan?”
“Believe it,” Tracy said.
“But how did you ever come to suspect her?”
“Dog dander,” Tracy said.
“Dog dander?” Dr. Tatum echoed.
“It was on Mrs. James’ bed clothes. Since Mrs. James had a phobia about dogs, I doubted that she would have done anything herself to put it there. That left you or Meghan as the only two people around her who were constantly exposed to dogs. Your alibi was air tight. We couldn’t break it. We tried. Those law suits were a lot of motive. So in the end, it had to be her.”
“How did she get in?” Dr. Tatum asked.
“I’m guessing that one of the times she helped Mrs. James with her groceries she either saw Mrs. James enter the pass code or Mrs. James asked her to enter it for her. I doubt if Mrs. James would have seriously tried to hide it from her. She probably learned the exit code the same way.”
“What now?”
“We have a search warrant for her house. We’ll try to find what she took from Mrs. James bedroom. And I’ll have to ask you for those electric shock dog collars. One of them will undoubtedly have Norma James DNA on it. I wonder why the one she took didn’t work?”

“Because I took the battery out,” Dr. Tatum said.

“You took the battery out?”

“You don’t think that I would subject my dogs to something as cruel as that do you? What kind of woman do you think I am?”

“But the court order?”

“Montgomery and Kitchener were so well trained they never would have crossed the property line. Those collars were completely extraneous. For show only. Something to appease Norma, allowing her to believe what she wanted to believe. I never bothered to tell Meghan. Poor child.” Dr. Tatum stood up and started walking towards the door. Tracy opened it and held it open for her. As she drew abreast, Dr. Tatum turned to Sheriff Hyers and said, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth… Arthur Conan Doyle.”

“Q-E-D, Dr. Tatum. Q-E-D.”

Dipped In Magic Waters

At the end of A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT, Robert Redford has a heart tugging little soliloquy as the voice of the elder Norman Maclean:

“Of course, now I am too old to be much of a fisherman, and now of course I usually fish the big waters alone, although some friends think I shouldn’t. Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
I am haunted by waters.

I, too, am haunted, but not by waters.  Perhaps it’s a side effect of growing old.  The other night, I was sitting in the stern of my boat smoking my pipe and watching the sun set over the cabin tops of the other boats moored on C-dock. There was no one around. Tracy and the animals were tucked away in the cabin. The other boat owners were where ever they go when they are not on their boats. It was just me and the setting sun. A cool breeze was blowing a full moon in to the darkening sky to the South East. Somewhere out in the channel, a passing boat had sent a gentle swell into the marina. The boat rocked ever so slightly. Around me, the loose halyards on the other boats tapped rhythmically against the aluminum masts. It was like listening to the heartbeat of the boats at rest against their moorings. moonlight and boatsIt was peaceful.  I mean, really peaceful.  I leaned back in my chair and looked up at the sky and realized that for the moment… for that particular point in time, I had completely let go and let God.  Whatever problems I had, were tomorrow’s problems and had nothing to do with me just then.  That was for tomorrow.  Whatever problems I had in the past were gone.  Sitting in the stern of the boat I was at peace.  I had just had a good meal.  I was wearing one of my Hawaiian shirts, smoking a blend of tobacco heavy in Latakia and Perique in an old, beat up corncob pipe and in that moment of total contentment I thought about… baseball.

I don’t know what it was about that moment, I certainly wasn’t sipping tea or eating a  madeleine, but suddenly, I was a kid again.  It was May 6, 1962 and my father had taken me to a twi-night double-header at Yankee Stadium.  1962 Yankee StadiumThe Yankees vs. The Washington Senators.  The Yankees lost the first game (4-2) but dominated in the second (8-0).  Between the games, dad took me to dinner in the clubhouse restaurant.  I don’t remember what I ate.  I remember that dinner took longer than we anticipated and the second game started before we were finished, but that was okay.  We had box seats three or four boxes back just behind the dugout on the first base side of the stadium.

Well, we didn’t “have” box seats.  The American Brass Company did.  Dad was a salesman for the American Brass Company and every time he surpassed his “nut” the company gave him tickets to a Yankee’s game.  Dad wasn’t the best salesman in the world so these times at Yankee Stadium were golden.

My dad was from Maryland so he naturally rooted for the Senators when he wasn’t rooting for the Baltimore Orioles.  Me, I was a Yankee fan.  I remember sitting on the couch next to him watching the games on our old black & white TV and listening to  Mel Allen in the broadcast booth sneaking in product placement commentary with his “Ballantine Blasts” or “White Owl Wallops”.  I heard later that he was augmenting his income with these surreptitious ways of describing baseball plays.  But, Hell, on this particular day, I was 13 years old.  What did I know or care?  I was in seventh heaven, man.  I was in Yankee Stadium watching my childhood heroes play ball.

I remember a lot about that game.  Dad bought a couple of Ballantine Ales Ballantine_xxx_logo_for_use_in_info_boxfrom the vender and the vender opened the can with three church keys he held in his left hand and poured the brew into a cup he held with his right.  The Senator’s Jimmy Piersall was caught stealing second.  He overslid the bag and Bobby Richardson tagged him out.  “Moose” Skowron was on first.  Elston Howard was behind the plate and Jim Bouton was pitching. Tommy Tresh was the shortstop, Clete Boyer was on third.  On the bench were Yankee greats Yogi Berra and Tony Kubek, just to name two.  And in the first inning, Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle hit back to back homeruns.

Maris had just come off that incredible season during which he broke Babe Ruth’s home run record.  As a kid, watching Maris bat, you just know I was praying for him to hit a home run.  And he didn’t disappoint.  When Maris took his swing and you heard that “crack” you knew it was gone.  There is something about the sound of a home-run hit ball that is unmistakable.  The “crack” of the bat; the roar of the crowd; and the cheering as the ball cleared the fence.  From my seat on the first base side, I could see the ball arc on the trajectory that would take it into bleachers.  The sun was setting.  The Stadium lights were on and the ball looked so white and graceful as it made its way beyond the reach of the right fielder.  Richardson, who had been on base, crossed first.  Maris crossed second, rounding the bases in that distinctive baseball homerun lope.  Then Mantle came up to bat.

There was no one on for him to drive in and for some reason, Pete Burnside, the Senator pitcher didn’t take him as seriously as he should have.  Or maybe he did.  Maybe he threw Mantle his best and Mantle just proved that he was the better man.  Burnside pitched.  Mantle swung.  There was no mistaking the “crack” of Mantle’s bat.  The sound had weight to it.  You not only heard it; you felt it.  It penetrated your flesh and lodged somewhere deep inside you.  Swing.  CRACK.  It filled the Stadium like a palpable presence and suddenly there was a split second of silence as 23,940 people all inhaled at the same time.  It was as if time stopped.  1961-mantle-swing-cropMantle’s ball didn’t just arc up into the air, it shot off his bat and disappeared into the bright lights that shone down on the field like so many tiny artificial suns above the Stadium’s facade.  I have no idea where the ball landed.  It came off Mantle’s bat and rocketed towards the night sky.  I lost it as it flew high enough to be hidden by the terrace level (not there since the Stadium was renovated.)  The ball disappeared in the blink of an eye.  And then the crowd roared.  It was as if the Stadium itself was applauding him on his home run lope around the bases.  Mantle hit another home run in the seventh inning.  Dad and I left soon after.  I don’t remember seeing the end of the game.  It was a Sunday and I had school the next day.  It wouldn’t be seemly for me to be out so late.

From the Bronx, my ghosts flew me across the East River to Flushing Meadows and Shea Stadium.  It was June 7th, 1972 and Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench and the rest of the Cincinnati Reds were giving the Mets a lesson in how to play “hustle” baseball.  I was at Shea with my best friend, Frank Davis.  Frank and I had been BFFs since prep school, you know, the kind of friends that double dated at the drive-ins totally ignoring the move to steam up the windows with our respective dates.  We were best men at each other’s weddings.  On Frank and Katie’s wedding night, they spent the night in my room and I slept in the honeymoon suite because Frank didn’t want his evening spoiled by usual wedding night pranks.  And when Frank didn’t like his honeymoon destination, he cut his trip short and he and Katie finished honeymooning in my apartment in Sandy Hook, Connecticut.  (I gave them the bedroom and took the couch in the living room.)

But on this particular day at Shea it was just me and Frank.  Katie was in Virginia and I had yet to meet the future ex-Mrs. Ruark and  the Mets were getting their collective asses handed to them by the Big Red Machine.  mets-shea-rheingold-1972-copyThe Reds were on their way to winning the National League Championship (only to lose to the Oakland A’s in the World Series) and for Frank and me, our only consolation was the Rheingold Beer.  It was good; it was cold; and it made us forget the way the Big Red Machine was handling our team.  But we weren’t the only fans suffering the pangs of the damned on that day.  Everyone around us was in the same situation, even the couple who brought their son, Billy, one year old and decked out from head to foot in a complete Met uniform, was feeling the Red heat.

When things seemed to be at their worst, the crowd began calling for “Willie”.  Willie Mays had been traded to the Mets and would eventually retire after the 1973 season.  But in 1972, the “Say Hey” kid had so much mystique that when things looked their bleakest, the crowd would call for “Willie” as if he could work some of that baseball magic and turn around an already bad game.  But Manager Yogi Berra had other plans.  So when he didn’t put Willy in, we began calling for Billy.  “Put Billy in… Put Billy in…” the chant was only local until the mother held Billy up replete in his Mets uniform, then our section really got into it.  We made enough noise that even the folks in the broadcast booth wondered whom we were calling for.  (This was in the days before stadiums had cameras that could pan the crowd.)

Well, Yogi didn’t put Billy in, either.  And in the long run, it really didn’t matter.  The Mets lost 3 to 6.  Rusty Staub and Tommy Agee managed to drive in the three runs between them, but between the Rheingold Beer and Billy, how and when was kind of a blur.  All I remember of the rest of the game was that it was a perfect summer afternoon.  I was with my best friend.  We were slogging down brews and talking about life, love and dreams of futures past.  The Mets didn’t win… no big deal.

And then my ghosts transported me to Wrigley.  It was April 26, 1997 and I was in a non-union road show of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.  I was playing Sheriff Heck Tate and we were performing to schools in every state east of the Mississippi river.  In Chicago we played to 3000 kids bussed into one of the city’s big auditoriums.  I remember going up on my lines when I was on the witness stand in the trial scene.  Something distracted me and I saw the microphones laid out in a straight line just behind the footlights and suddenly I wasn’t the sheriff, but little old me looking up through the lights at several tiers of young, shadowy faces.

From the movie.

From the movie.

Sheriff Tate knew exactly what to say… but Eric Ruark suddenly wondered what the Hell he was doing sitting in a chair in the middle of the stage in a huge auditorium filled with so many young people expecting him to say something important.  Fortunately, the actor playing the prosecuting attorney recognized my deer-in-the-headlights look and turned to me and said, “Let me re-phrase the question…” and then he gave me my line phrased as a question and I was able to snap back into character.

That was on a Friday and the powers-that-be in New York decided to let us weekend in Chicago before driving over to our next venue.  It was the perfect time for a break.  I needed to clear my head and forget about my near disaster from the night before, so while the other members of the cast headed to the Navy Pier or wherever, I hopped the El and made my way to Wrigley Field.  My plan was to get the cheapest seat I could, have a couple of beers and lose myself in an afternoon of baseball.  The Cubs were playing the Pirates.  Neither was in the running for the division title, so I figured that there would be plenty of seats available.

On the ride up to Wrigley, I looked over in the next car and saw the young black actor who was playing Tom Robinson.  As an out-of-towner on the El, there could be only one place he was headed.  So I got up and walked into the next car.  He, too, felt the need to clear his head and thought the Cub game would be just the place to do it.  While we were talking, we noticed our Atticus in the next car up, so together we went to tease him.

wrigle02The three of us got to Wrigley a couple of hours before the game began.  It was a beautiful, partly sunny day with the temperature in the mid-60s.  We took advantage of the time to cruise some of the bars (most of which were practically empty) and to just get the feel of the area.  Then, nearing game time, we walked up to the ticket window at Wrigley to see what they had to offer.  Somehow, I was appointed spokesman for our little group.

Me to the man in the ticket window:  “Hi, there.  Have you got any cheap seats available?

Ticket man:  “What were you looking for?”

Me:  “We don’t really know.  We’re actors on tour and have been given the day off.  We wanted to see a Cub game and we’ve never been to Wrigley before so we don’t know what to ask for.”

Ticket man: “You’ve never been to Wrigley?”

Me: “No.  This is our first time.”

Ticket man: “Then have I got the perfect seats for you.  And cheap, too.  Only 20-bucks each.

Me: “We’ll take ‘em.”

So we bought our seats.  We didn’t realize the ticket man had fooled us until we sat down.

Our view that day at Wrigley.

Our view that day at Wrigley.

He put us in the front row of the mezzanine directly behind home plate only a section or two away from the broadcast booth to our left.  One seat could have easily cost a more than the three of us had combined, but the ticket man had only charged us $20 apiece for them.  The man was a saint. So we settled in with a couple of beers apiece, a couple of bags of peanuts and we watched the game.  Rhino Sandberg hit a homer in the second and the rest of the Cubs scored six more runs allowing them to beat the Pirates 7-6.)  It was a great game and to top it off, during the 7th inning stretch, Harry Caray opened the broadcast booth windows and lead the crowd in “Take Me Out To The Ball Game…”  And after the game, we circled the stadium trying out all kinds of Polish sausages and drinking even more beer and just having one Hell of a good time.

When Harry Caray died in February of 1998, I was playing C.S. Lewis’ brother in SHADOWLANDS at a small theater in New Milford, CT.  We were at one of the local watering holes and I heard the report on the late night news from the TV over the bar.  I had to step away from the table because I didn’t want the others to see me tearing up.

Harry Caray

Harry Caray

There had been something so special about that day at Wrigley that his death meant more than just the death of a well-know sport’s personality.  That day a Wrigley had had such a deep effect on me that I took Harry Caray’s death personally.

And that’s what I realized as my pipe went out while sitting on the stern of my boat on that night in a little bay off the Chesapeake. I had been blessed to experience four perfect moments in time: one as a child at Yankee Stadium; one as a young adult at Shea; one as an older adult at Wrigley and finally one as an old man with a full moon rising over my left shoulder.  As I tapped the ash out of the bowl, I began humming TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALLGAME while in the back of my mind, I heard the great voice of James Earl Jones:

Ray. People will come, Ray. They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn into your driveway, not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door, as innocent as children, longing for the past. “Of course, we won’t mind if you look around,” you’ll say, “It’s only twenty dollars per person.” And they’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it, for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they’ll walk off to the bleachers and sit in their short sleeves on a perfect afternoon. And find they have reserved seats somewhere along the baselines where they sat when they were children. And cheer their heroes. And they’ll watch the game, and it’ll be as they’d dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick, they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come, Ray. The one constant through all the years Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again. Oh people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.

Terence Mann’s soliloquy from FIELD OF DREAMS by Phil Alden Robinson.

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Hide ‘N Seek (A locked room mystery)

Hide-N-Seek

© Copyright 2013 by Eric B. Ruark

(Larry is an American Studies professor and Lara, his wife, is a cancer survivor.  Sometimes they detect.  Not because they want to, but because it appears to be the logical thing to do at the time.)

“Darling, you didn’t bring anything home from the old Potter place, last night, did you?” Lara Armstrong glibly asked while stepping into the study where her husband, Larry, was working on his latest lecture for his American Studies class.  Wearing a white dressing gown that had a 40” front slit, she entered carrying a steaming pot of coffee and two empty cups.

“No, dear.  Why?” Larry asked looking up from the computer screen and casting a long glance at the amount of thigh his wife was showing.

“The Mid-Day news just reported that several million dollars worth of paintings were stolen from there last night,” she said walking over to the desk and pouring them both a cup of coffee.

“Did they say what happened?” Larry asked.

“That’s the strange part,” Lara answered.  “No one knows.  According to the report, when the curator’s assistant opened up this morning, everything was just as she left it last night.  There were no signs of forced entry.  The alarm system was still turned on.  Only several of the most expensive paintings were missing.”

Lara put the coffee pot down on one of Larry’s reference books and sat on his lap.  She unbuttoned the top three buttons of his oxford shirt.

“I’m not sure Professor Trachtenberg would appreciate you using his book as a hot plate,” Larry said putting his arms around her waist.

“Well, what Professor Trachtenberg doesn’t know won’t hurt him,” Lara answered.  She leaned down and kissed her husband on the forehead.  Lara was 22 years younger than Larry.  Larry was 55 and a professor of American Studies at a small college in Baltimore, Maryland.  Lara had been the manager of the dry cleaners where Larry took his clothes to be cleaned.  Lara thought he was sweet and kind and a terrible dresser.  It took him almost two and a half years to ask her out despite the subtle hints that she had tossed his way.  As their lips touched, she marveled how someone so smart could b so dumb.  The phone rang interrupting them.

“Damn,” Larry said.

“Lara leaned back and reached for the phone on the side table.  She answered it then handed it to Larry.  “It’s for you.  It’s the police.”

“Hello,” Larry said.

“Professor Armstrong, this is Detective Simon with the Baltimore Police.  Have you been watching the news?

“I take it you’re referring to the robbery at the Potter Museum?”
“Then, you’ve seen the report?”

“No.  My wife just told me about it.”

“Since you were there at the board dinner last night, I was wondering if you could come down to the museum at 3 o’clock this afternoon and answer some questions.”

Larry looked a the clock in the lower corner of his computer screen.  “Is it OK if I bring my wife?” he asked.

“I don’t see why not,” the Detective responded.

“We’ll see you then.”  Larry hung up.

Lara gave him a little shove.  “Why me?” she asked.

“Let’s see,” Larry said holding up his hand and counting down with his fingers.  “Million dollar robbery; you know the history of the place; you’ll know most of the people involved; this is your chance to see a major news story from the inside ; and you say I never take you anywhere.”

“Fair enough.”  Lara kissed him on the cheek.  “But we take the Mustang, top down and I drive.”

***

Lara loved the Potter mansion/museum.  Larry had written about the house several times: first, for a small, prestigious architectural magazine, then for the Journal of American Studies.  His architectural article had been picked up and republished in an English architectural journal generating several more article about the design and building of the estate.  (Lara had typed up all his notes.)  And his article for the Journal of American Studies had satisfied the “publish or die” requirement towards his tenure.

The Potter mansion was located on the outskirts of Baltimore overlooking the Chesapeake Bay.  Built in 1815 by Joshua Potter, a merchant who made his fortune in the slave trade, the house was the architectural marvel of its age.  Inspired by the popular designs of Andrea Palladio, the 16th Century author of I Quattro Libri dell’ Architettura, it consisted of five building: a main rectangular section flanked by four smaller rectangular “wings” each attached to the main building by a series of long corridors like the spokes of a wheel.

The house was enormous, more than 10,000 square feet.  According to Charles Sukkar-Smythe, the curator of the museum, Joshua Potter had originally built the house for entertaining with a large drawing room placed on one side of a voluminous reception hall and an equally large dining room on the other.  In addition to the main house, the estate also consisted of a carriage barn with stables, a bathhouse and a landing; a dairy; a smokehouse; an ice house; and slave quarters for the slaves that had once worked in the house and on the 300 acres on which it sat.

Larry’s American Studies article, on the other hand, dealt with the family, specifically Joshua Potter’s only surviving son, Amos.  Unlike his father, Amos found religion.  He became a Quaker and with his Quakerism adopted the Quaker stance on Abolition.  From a slaver owner’s mansion, Amos Potter turned the house into a station on the Underground Railroad and a sanctuary for runaway slaves.

If Joshua Potter was rich by the standards of his time, Amos Potter and his descendants grew even richer.  Amos put money into ships and shipping.  His Baltimore Clippers sailed the seas bringing home the riches of the world.  His immediate heirs invested in Pennsylvania oil fields.  Later generations invested heavily in steel and the western oil fields.  According to Larry, the Potters had graduated from stinking rich in the early 1900s to somewhere between disgustingly rich and they don’t make Swiss banks big enough by the turn of the next century.

Larry and Lara pulled into the museum parking lot where a uniformed officer directed to the staff parking lot.  From there, they were escorted by another uniformed officer up the mansion stairs and down the long reception hall to what had originally been the “sewing” room and was now the curator’s office.

Despite being frequent visitors to the Potter house, Larry and Lara were always awed by the works of art that hung along the walls.  But as Larry said, “It’s not like the Potters bought these painting at Christie’s .  They picked them up when the artists were young and unknown and just held on to them.  Time did the rest.”

The walls of the long hall were studded with oil paintings featuring the smaller works of the Hudson River School.  The dining room was reserved for the works of the American Genre artists of the 1830s and 1840s.  And the drawing room featured the Post Civil War art of Innes, Wyant and Martin.  As they walked down the reception hall, Larry and Lara could see that in each room several of the paintings had been removed from their frames.

When they reached the curator’s office, Larry found everyone from last night’s Directors’ Dinner already there.  Curator Charles Sukkor-Smythe, impeccably dressed, pressed and starched in a dark suit with a lavender shaded shirt and matching tie, sat behind the Louis XV mahogany desk.  His assistant, Mrs. Arthur Blake, stood by the marble fireplace.  Larry like to think of her as a typical Maryland grandmother type with white hair, a large bosom, and black orthopedic shoes  (According to Lara, there were ‘sensible’ shoes not orthopedic.)  Directors George Kaplan, Albert De Quincey and Peter Kingery, the hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, but speak-any-kind-of –evil-as-long-as-it’s-behind-the-other-person’s-back trio that rubber stamped all of the curator’s motions, sat on the leather couch by the two windows that looked out over the back garden.  Marcia Potter Scott sat in the chair next to the curator’s desk, smoking a cigarette and answering Detective Simon’s questions.  Marcia was Larry’s age although looked closer to Lara’s which was surprising because, as Larry told Lara, she despised plastic surgery, smoked like a chimney, and spent as much time as she could out in the sun.  She was very proud of her tan and wore a St. John, Santana dress to show it off to perfection.  (Lara recognized the dress; Larry didn’t.)  Detective Simon, on the other hand, was a heavy set black man in his late 40s.  He wore a dark gray suit and walked around the room with a small notebook that looked even smaller because of his large hands.  When Larry and Lara entered, Detective Simon was concentrating all of his attention on Marcia.  Marcia was sitting in the guest chair next to Sukkor-Smythe’s desk.  As she spoke, Sukkor-Smythe would unobtrusively reach over and empty the crystal paperweight which Marcia was using as an ashtray.

“No, I didn’t like what father had done,” Marcia said in response to a Detective Simon question.  “It was a foolish idea, leaving all this art and our home to the city as a museum and only leaving my brother, George, and me some piddling little bequests.  Why, we even tried to break his will.”

Larry knew that Marcia Potter Scott wasn’t telling any secrets.  The siblings attempt to break the will had made many of the national papers and all of the national tabloids.

Marcia Scott and her brother, George, were direct descendants of Joshua Potter.  They had grown up in that house.  It was only natural that they should look upon everything in it as theirs as , once upon a time, it had been… right up until the time their father, Mark Potter, pulled the antique Persian rugs right out from under them.

To Larry’s way of thinking, they really had nothing to cry about.  When Mark Potter gave everything in the house away, he took ALL the tax deductions allowed by law and secured the rest of his money in irrevocable trusts.  Mark had never been big on sharing and all the political talk of ‘redistributing’ the wealth was anathema to him.  Mark was a Potter through and through.  He knew how to play the game.  By giving away everything and taking the tax write-offs, at his death, Mark Potter has assured his son and daughter tax-free incomes of over $10-million a year apiece for the rest of their lives.  Larry found it mind-boggling that Marcia and George considered that amount of money “piddling” and had actually tried to break the will.

“So why did you come back?” Detective Simon asked.

“We grew up here,” Marcia answered.  “George and I played hide-n-seek here with our nanny and the servants.  This house has a lot of memories for us.”

“Where’s your brother now?” Detective Simon asked.

“He’s on a plane to South Africa,” she answered.  “He’s a professional photographer and had to go on assignment for some magazine.”  She turned to Charles Sukkor-Smythe.  “You remember him telling you when you sent him the invitation that he could only stay for a short time.”

Sukkor-Smythe turned to Detective Simon.  “That’s right.  He said that he could only stay for soup and salad since he had to catch a long flight.”

Marcia Scott continued, “After my brother left, he called me from the airport to complain about the long wait because of all the added security.  You can check my cell phone log.”  She reached into her purse and handed Detective Simon her cell phone  “There’s his number.  You see, he called at about 9:30 last night.”

Detective Simon took the phone and looked at the incoming call log and then he pushed the redial button.

“Hello, is this George Potter?… I’m Detective Simon… No, nothing has happened to your sister… I’m using her phone… I’m sorry to tell you that there was a robbery at the museum last night… no, no one was hurt… What time did you leave?… Did you see anything suspicious outside as you were leaving?… When are you expected back in the States?…. Not for that long?… I’m going to need a set of your fingerprints… Yes, the embassy should be able to do that for you… Yes.   Have them forward them to me, Detective Simon, care of the Baltimore Police Department… Yes…. Thank you.”  He terminated the call and handed the phone back to Marcia.

Detective Simon turned to Larry and Lara.  “And you are?”

“Larry and Lara Armstrong,” Larry answered.  “We spoke on the phone a couple of hours ago.  I was the keynote speaker last night at the Directors’ dinner.”

“He’s also the unofficial Potter family historian,” Sukkar-Smythe added.

“Hello, Larry, Lara,” Marcia said.

“Sorry to see you under these circumstances,” Lara said.

“Shit happens,” Marcia answered.

“That’s a hell of an attitude,” Detective Simon said.

“Well, it’s not like they’re my paintings any more,” Marcia snapped.  “They were part of the trust that daddy gave away.  I’m sure the trust had them insured.  It’s their problem, now.”  She turned to Sukkar-Smythe.  “I’m sorry if I sound cold, Charles.  But I just want you to know that I don’t envy your position at the moment.”  She stubbed out her cigarette in the crystal and lit another.

Charles Sukkor-Smythe put on a brave face and nodded slowly.  Lara pulled Larry’s arm and whispered in his ear drawing Detective Simon’s attention.

Detective Simon turned to them.  “And where were the two of you last night?” he asked.

“Well, after leaving here,” Larry said, “I went home and waited for Lara.”

“And you were?” Detective Simon asked Lara.

“I was with my breast cancer support group until 11:30 last night,” she answered.  “I can give their names and phone numbers if you’d like.”

Detective Simon’s eyes immediately went to Lara’s chest.  “Uhmm, excuse me,.”  Detective Simon reddened with embarrassment.

“It’s all right, Detective,” Lara said.  “Don’t feel embarrassed.  It’s a natural reaction.”

“And from 11:30 until this morning?” Detective Simon asked trying to quickly get back on the subject.

“We were alone, together,” Larry answered.

Detective Simon turned to Sukkor–Smythe.  “Now that you’re all here, why don’t you tell me everything that happened last night.”

“Well,” Sukkor-Smythe began, “it was our usual semi-annual board meeting with two exceptions.  This time we invited Marcia Scott and George Potter to be our guests, and in honor of their visit, I asked Professor Armstrong to give a little talk about the museum for their benefit.  He’s published several articles on the museum and the Potter family.  As Marcia said, George Potter put in a quick appearance.  He stayed for cocktails and hors d’ouerves then had Mrs. Blake call him a cab.  He needed to get to BWI to catch a shuttle to Dulles where he was going to catch the flight to South Africa…”

“…He needed to be there a couple of hours early because of the added security and the fact that he had a lot of photo equipment that had to be hand checked through security and customs,” Marcia interrupted.

“Quite so,” Sukkor-Smythe said.  “After he left, we had our dinner.  Larry spoke, and rather well, I might add, then we had our board meeting.  Marcia objected to some of the things that the museum was doing.  The board listened to her and took her comments under advisement.”

“What sort of things did you object to?” Detective Simon asked turning to Marcia.

“They’re thinking of selling my father’s collection of late 20th Century memorabilia,” Marcia said.

“It’s really the kind of thing you find on e-Bay,” Sukkor-Smythe said, “and has so place here in this kind of museum.  Ask Larry.”

Detective Simon turned to Larry.

“It’s a question of poetics and politicized culture in museum displays and what cultural assumptions you want the people who view your museum collection to make,” Larry said.  He took a deep breath and Lara recognized the beginning of a lecture.

“English, Larry, English,” she said.

“Oh, right.  It basically boils down to the fact that the stuff in the back room doesn’t fit in with what’s on display,” Larry said.

Marcia lit another cigarette.  “You know, at one time, there were a lot of people who considered all that priceless furniture out there just to be old junk,” she said waiving her hand in the general direction of the front of  the building.

“Marcia, this is different,” Sukkor-Smythe said..

“The only difference is a couple of hundred years,” Marcia countered.

“How many of you have access to the pass codes to get in here?” Detective Simon asked trying to head off what appeared to be an unfinished argument.

“Only myself and Mrs. Blake.”  Sukkor-Smythe nodded to the elderly woman standing by the marble fireplace.

“And you reported the theft?” Detective Simon asked turning to Mrs. Blake after checking his notes.

“As soon as I found the empty picture frames,” she said.

Detective Simon consulted his notes again.  “You called this in at 5:30 am.  What time do you usually get to work?”

“Normally not until 8:30, but last night was unusual,” Mrs. Blake answered.

“How so?” Detective Simon asked.

“The Directors’ Dinner is always held in the main dining room,” Mrs. Blake explained.  “We use the original English silver, ceramics and glassware.  For the dinner, the barriers are removed so that the directors and our guests have full access to all the original art and furniture.  We try to make it appear as if they were actually dining in the antebellum period.  The food is prepared by a local caterer to original recipes that were found in the pantry records or based on invoices that the kitchen staff kept from the various food providers in the area.  Then, some of it is just guess-work since the plantation grew a lot of its own food.”

“Which doesn’t explain why you came in early,” Detective Simon said.

“Of course,” Mrs. Blake said somewhat flustered.  “Despite the private function last night, this place is still a museum that’s open to the public.  I came in early to make sure that everything was ready for us to open as usual at 9:30 am.  We have lots of school children that come through here on prearranged tours.”

”And what’s your normal routine when you come in?” Detective Simon asked.

“Well, I turn off the alarm by punching in the correct code and leaving my thumb print on the number pad by the back door.  Then, I unlock the door and enter.  Then, I go to my office and call the alarm company to let them know that it was really me that unlocked the door…”

“You call the alarm company?” Detective Simon asked.

“It’s a double safety procedure,” Sukkor-Smythe explained.  “We not only have to disengage the alarm, but we also have to call the security company to let them know that only an authorized person has disarmed the system.”

“How about leaving the building?” Detective Simon asked.

“Pretty much the same, but in reverse,” Sukkor-Smythe explained.  “We call the alarm company; tell them that we are about to engage the alarm; close and lock the door; then engage the alarm.  Once the alarm is engaged, the opening of any door will set it off.”

“What about the windows?” Detective Simon asked.

“All the windows in this museum are hermetically sealed because of the antique furniture and art.  The museum is totally climate controlled.  Any rupture in any of the seals would set off the alarm.”

“If anyone was locked in, could they get out without setting off the alarm” Detective Simon asked.

“I don’t see how,” Sukkor-Smythe said.  “If anyone opened the door without first disconnecting the alarm from the outside, the alarm would go off.  If anyone called the security company before opening the door and turning off the alarm, the security company would treat that breach of protocol as a break-in.”

Detective Simon made a few more notes on his pad.  “Let me tell you my problem,” he said to no one in particular.  “Last night all of you, except for Mrs. Armstrong, had dinner here.  After dinner, you all left, leaving Mrs. Blake to supervise the caterers clean up.  After the caterers left, Mrs. Blake closed up shop and turned on the alarm.  Sometime between then and 5:30 this morning, several painting worth several millions of dollars were stolen from this museum.  Now, according to both Mrs. Blake and Mr. Sukkor-Smythe, it is impossible to get in without the proper code and more importantly, it is impossible to get out without setting off the alarm once it has been activated.  However, there is one way of getting out of here without setting off any alarm… and that’s if someone lets you out…”

“…Lets you out,” interrupted Marcia Scott.  “Why that would mean that the thief had help.”

“It wouldn’t be the first time,” Detective Simon said.  “Someone who had access to the codes and knew the procedures must have let the thief or thieves out when she came in this morning.”  He looked directly over at Mrs. Blake.

“I don’t understand,” Mrs. Blake said.  “Are you accusing me of stealing the paintings?”  She reached out suddenly and grabbed on to the mantle of the fireplace.  Larry, who was standing nearby, quickly took her by the arm and guided her over to the sofa and sat her down beside the three board members.

As Larry escorted Mrs. Blake to a seat, Sukkor-Smythe said, “That’s ridiculous.  Mrs. Blake has been with me for over 10-years, not only here, but at my previous position with the Smithsonian.”

The door opened and one of Detective Simon’s assistants stepped in and handed him a slip of paper.  Detective Simon read it.  “Good,” he said.  “Show him in.”

The assistant left and returned a few moments later with a distinguished looking man in his mid-thirties dressed in a dark suit.  Although Larry didn’t know him, it was obvious that others in the room did.

“Good morning, Charles, Mrs. Blake, uncle Albert,” the man said in a deep melodious voice.  As he spoke, he turned to each person he addressed.

“D-d-david, what are you d-d-doing here?” Albert De Quincey asked from the couch.

“I assume it has something to do with the theft,” David answered.

“I asked him,” Detective Simon explained.  “For those of you who don’t know, David Makepeace, here is the CEO of the alarm company that services this museum.”

“Apparently, he is also, Albert’s nephew,” Larry said looking between the two of them.

“That’s right,” David said.  “But before you all jump to any presuppositions about nepotism, my company also provides security for several museums in the Baltimore/Washington corridor as well as several of the private testing labs located around the Beltway.    Because of Uncle Albert, here, we provide top-of-the-line security for the Potter House for far less than what we would normally charge for that level of service… and, except for the events of last night, my company has a perfect record.  This theft will severely damage our image with our public.”  He turned to Detective Simon.  “If there is anything I can do to help, just ask.  To say that I have a vested interest in what happens would be an understatement.”

“Apparently, Detective Simon here was just about to arrest Mrs. Blake for being an accessory to the crime,” Larry said.

Makepeace looked at Mrs. Blake sitting next to his uncle on the couch and then turned to Detective Simon.  “You have got to be kidding me,” he said.

“When you’ve been a cop for as long as I have, it wouldn’t seem that strange,” Detective Simon said.  “But, Professor Armstrong here is jumping the gun.  I could just as easily build a case around you and Mr. De Quincey, here.”

“You c-c-can’t be s-s-serious,” De Quincey said.  The other directors, Blake and Kingery moved a few inches away from him on the couch as if to avoid guilt by proximity.

“Certainly I can,” Detective Simon said.  “The first thing you learn in this business is to do your homework.  Mr. Sukkor-Smythe, you’ve told me that only two people had the access codes to the museum, you and Mrs. Blake.  You forgot a third person, Mr. Makepeace here.  He could have given them to his uncle who could have used them to enter the building last night after Mrs. Blake had locked up.”

“T-t-that is ab-b-bsurd,” De Quincey said.

“ Oh, really?” Detective Simon said.  “Mr. Makepeace, who was on your security desk, last night… and be careful, I already know the answer.”

“I was,” Makepeace answered.

“And how hard would it have been for you and your uncle to work together to get into this building?” Detective Simon asked.

“Well, if you put it that way, it would have been relatively easy,” Makepeace answered.

“D-d-david!” De Quincey said.

“Oh, uncle Albert, relax,” Makepeace said calmly.  “In my company, even the watchers are watched.”  He turned to Detective Simon.  “What you are suggesting could be done.  But why would we do it?”

“For the money, of course,” Detective Simon answered.

“Well, I guess you’ll have to pull our bank records to find out,” Makepeace said.

“I’ve already requested a warrant,” Detective Simon answered.

“I don’t mean to interfere, but there might be another explanation,” Larry said.

“If there is, I’m open to hear it,” Detective Simon said.

Lara laughed.  “Give’m Hell, Larry,” she said.  Larry smiled back.

“Mrs. Blake, last night… the caterers… did they use the old fashioned wood stove in the kitchen?” Larry asked.

“Of course not.  They prepared the food elsewhere and brought it here in their van,” she answered.

“That means that they had to go in and out of the back of the building on several occasions,” Larry said.

“Yes,” Mrs. Blake answered.

“So, for the duration of the dinner and up until you left for the night, the alarm was turned off,” Larry said.

“But the paintings weren’t stolen during the dinner,” Marcia Scott said.  “They were hanging all around us while we ate and drank.”

“That’s right.  They weren’t stolen during dinner.  They were stolen after Mrs. Blake locked up.”

“Then how did the thief or thieves get out with them if she didn’t help them or if they didn’t have help from the security company?” Detective Simon asked.

“What makes you think that the thief left with them?” Larry asked.

“Are you trying to tell me that the paintings are still here in the museum?” Detective Simon asked.

“Well, if not IN the museum, at least, very close by,” Larry said.  “Look at it this way:  who gains the most by stealing the paintings?  The thief won’t be able to sell them.  They are too well known.  Every one of the stolen paintings has been officially cataloged and there isn’t an art collector in the world who doesn’t know how to do due diligence on a work of art.  No fool in his right mind would attempt to buy something stolen from the Potter Collection.  But what if you weren’t stealing them to sell them?  What if you were stealing them to get them back?”
“Get them back?” Detective Simon said as if trying to get his mind around the idea.  “But they’ve never been lost,” he said after a moment.

“Sure they were,” Larry said.  “Weren’t they, Marcia.”

“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Marcia Scott said shaking another cigarette from her pack.

“You said it yourself,” Larry said.  “You grew up in this house.  You played hide-n-seek here.  Everything in this place… these were your things and your father took them away from you and gave them to a group of strangers to take care of.  I’ll bet you and George even played under the dining room table when you were kids.”

Marcia was silent.

“Just after Lara and I came in, you handed Detective Simon your cell phone to show him that your brother had called from the airport last night,” Larry said.

“That’s right, he did,” Marcia said.

“I’m sure he did,” Larry answered.  “Only, when Detective Simon hit the redial and spoke with him, I’ll bet you he was a lot closer than on a plane heading to South Africa.”

“What?” Detective Simon said.

“It was something Lara reminded me of earlier when she whispered to me,” Larry said.  “You can’t call or receive calls using your cell phone from flights that travel over water.”

“But I use my cell phone on planes all the time,” Sukkor-Smythe said.

“Sure,” Larry said, “when you are flying between here and San Francisco or Chicago, where cell calls can be picked up by one of the numerous towers you’re flying over, if you are fortunate to lock on to one.  Only there are no cell phone towers in the middle of the South Atlantic.  Transoceanic planes aren’t equipped to handle cell phone calls.  In another two or three years, the technology will allow for it.  But not now.  Now, if you want to make a call, you have to use the plane’s radio-phone.”  Larry turned to Detective Simon.  “You were right about the alarm system.  Once you’re locked in, you’re locked in until someone lets you out.  But then, what’s to stop you from waiting until the museum opens and leaving as if you are one of the paying customers?”

“But how would you get the paintings out?” Detective Simon asked.

“Once you’ve taken them off their wooden thing’a-ma-bobs, all you’d have to do is roll them up and hide them under your coat,” Larry said.  “All George would need is the time and space to do it.”

“Are you suggesting that George Potter is still here?” Detective Simon asked.

“That’s ridiculous,” Marcia said.

“BWI is no more than 45 minutes away,” Larry said.  “George could easily have taken a cab to the airport, called you and then taken a cab back or rented a car and driven back or maybe you planted a car there for him.  However he did it, all he had to do was get back here and sneak into the house while the rest of us were having dinner.  Mrs. Blake has already told us the place was unlocked.  Marcia, you and George lived here for what? … Some twenty-five years?  I’m sure you both know ways in and out of these buildings just like a couple of kids who played hide-n-seek here would know.  With the alarm turned off, George could have come in a side door or a back door or even the front door.  Nobody would have been looking.  Then all he had to do was hide himself while we were eating.”

“My men have been all through this house,” Detective Simon said.  “Nothing.”

“No offense, Detective, but Maryland was a slave state before the Civil War.  Don’t you think the rich, abolitionist Amos Potter would have built more than a couple of Priest Holes to hide runaway slaves from their pursuers?  Even with dogs, I sincerely doubt your men would have found anything.  If you want those paintings, start looking for some secret rooms hidden behind these walls.”

“Why waste your time looking,” Lara said.  “There might be a faster way.”  Everyone turned to look at her.  Lara turned to look at Marcia.  “Marcia, you know all the old hiding places around here.  Where would you hide if you wanted to stay out of everybody’s way?”

Marcia stubbed her cigarette out violently in the crystal paperweight.  “Oh, all right,” she said.  “There’s a big Priest Hole behind the far wall in the root cellar.”

“Lead the way,” Detective Simon said.

Marcia led them out of the old sewing room and down the hall towards the kitchen area.  She led them down the stairs and into the root cellar.  There was a floor to ceiling cupboard that took up most of the far wall.  “Family legend says that Amos Potter used to keep this cupboard filled with all kinds of spices to confuse the blood hounds that the slave catchers brought with them.”  She reached up and hit a toggle hidden between the cupboard and the wall.  The cupboard swung open revealing the stolen paintings and a young man in his late teens.  Everyone froze.

“Who in the Hell are you?” Larry asked.

“He was one of the waiters from last night,” Marcia said.

“He’s also Mrs. Blake’s grand nephew,” Sukkor-Smythe said.

Everyone looked around.  “Where is Mrs. Blake?” Detective Simon asked.

“S-s-s-she was r-r-right behind us,” Albert De Quincey said.

Detective Simon reached to his belt and removed a small radio.  “Attention everyone: Stop Mrs. Arthur Blake from leaving the parking lot.”

A few moments later, “Got her,” came crackling back over the set.  The police escorted Mrs. Blake back to the sewing room where, when she saw her grand nephew in handcuffs, she confessed.

Faced with retirement and the prospect of living on her meager savings and Social Security, she had masterminded the heist.  She had asked the caterers to hire her grand nephew as a perk for getting the catering contract.  They did.  He left with them, but came back before Mrs. Blake had closed the museum for the night.  She let him back in then locked up.  She had known about the Priest Hole and told him how to get to it.  After the place was dark, he came out and took the pre-selected paintings down to the Priest Hole, locked himself in and waited for the museum to return to business as usual.  The plan was for him to walk out with the paying customers with the paintings rolled up under his coat.

After she confessed, Larry walked up to Detective Simon.  “You were right all along,” Larry said.

“That’s why I get paid the big bucks,” Detective Simon said.   “But don’t take it so hard.  You nailed that Priest Hole thing.  They almost got away with it.”

“But I don’t understand.  I was sure it was George Potter.”  Larry turned to Marcia.  “Marcia, he can’t be on a plane to South Africa.  So where is he?”

“Probably on the beach in Ocean City, by now.  He was so upset about losing the house and everything that he couldn’t bear to stay for more than a few minutes.”

“You know lying to the police is a prosecutable offense,” Detective Simon said.

“So sue me,” Marcia said digging in her Gucci purse for another pack of cigarettes.

***

After they were dismissed by Detective Simon, Larry and Lara walked out to their car.  As they walked, Larry noticed that Lara was a little stand-offish.  “What’s wrong?” he asked.

“I’m mad at you,” she said.

“Why?” Larry asked.

“Well, if you don’t know, I’m certainly not going to tell you,” Lara said.

“How about a hint?” Larry asked.

“You should have known about not being able to use your cell phone in an airplane over the ocean,” she said.  “I shouldn’t have had to tell you.”

“Oh,” Larry said.

“That’s right,” Lara said.  “That means that when you flew to England last month for that three-day conference, you didn’t once try to call me from the airplane, otherwise, you would have known.  What were you doing that you forgot to tell me?”

“I wasn’t doing anything,” Larry said defensively.  “I started re-reading Larry Lauter’s book on Emerson’s essays and before I knew it, I was at Heathrow.”

“Oh… so a book is more important to you than I am,” Lara said smiling.

Realizing that she was teasing him and that he wasn’t going to win this argument anyway, Larry opted for the next best thing.

“How about I apologize by taking you down to your favorite restaurant in Annapolis?” he asked.

“You’re so easy,” Lara said laughing.

***********************************************

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Night Moves and Other Mood Breakers

Had one of those perfect-moments-in-time the other night.

I was sitting in the stern of the boat smoking my pipe and watching the sun set over the cabin tops of the other boats moored on C-dock. There was no one around. Tracy and the animals were tucked away in the cabin enjoying the cooling air from the conditioner. The other boat owners were where ever they go when they are not on their boats. It was just me and the setting sun. A warm breeze was blowing a full moon in to the darkening sky to the South East. Somewhere out in the channel, a passing boat had sent a gentle swell into the marina. The boat was rocking ever so slightly. Around me, the loose halyards on the other boats tapped rhythmically against their aluminum masts. It was like listening to the heartbeats of the boats at rest against their moorings. It was peaceful.  I mean, really peaceful.  I leaned back in my chair and looked up at the sky and realized that for the moment… for that particular point in time, I had completely let go and let God.

Whatever problems I had were tomorrow’s problems and had nothing to do with me just then.  Whatever problems I had in the past were gone.  Sitting in the stern of the boat I was at peace.  I had just had a good meal.  I was wearing one of my Hawaiian shirts, smoking a bowl of Baker Street,  a medium-to-strong English Blend featuring generous portions of Latakia and Perique tobacoos, along with a variety of Virginias and burleys in an old, well-used, Calabash pipe that I had had for close to 40 years.  The Bible said it: with food and raiment, therewith be content.  And I was.

Calabash-pipe

There were clouds to the north and from them came the low, distant rumbling of summer thunder.  Suddenly the words to an old Bob Seger song popped into my mind:

I woke last night to the sound of thunder
How far off I sat and wondered
Started humming a song from 1962
Ain’t it funny how the night moves
When you just don’t seem to have as much to lose
Strange how the night moves
With autumn closing in….        (Night Moves)

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It seemed so perfect… autumn was closing in… the distant sound of thunder played at the edge of my hearing… the warm breeze blew over me… and I began to think about 1962… I would have been in the 8th grade… what songs would I have been humming from then?

And that’s when the mood broke.  I couldn’t think of one song that I could have hummed that would have sustained the mood Night Moves had just evoked.  Mashed Potato Time by Dee Dee Sharp, The Stripper by David Rose, The Twist by Chubby Checker were just not going to cut it.  What song could Bob Seger have been thinking of?  I Can’t Stop Loving You by Ray Charles or even Roses are Red (My Love) by Bobby Vinton have some mood capabilities, but listen to Night Moves and then hum either one of them and… no way.  Maybe the slow, much later version of Neil Sedaka’s Breaking Up Is Hard To Do has a shot at the Night Moves mood, but not the 1962 version.

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Ray Charles

Neil Sedaka

Neil Sedaka

Bobby Vinton

Bobby Vinton

So with the mood gone and my pipe finished, I climbed out of the cockpit and reentered the main cabin.  Tracy was up on the main berth wearing nothing but a smile and getting ready to watch one of her favorite TV shows.  As I watched her fiddling around with the rabbit ears (we don’t have cable) to insure the best HD reception (you can get HD reception without paying for cable) I couldn’t help from breaking out with Dion’s The Wanderer and dancing across the cabin.

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ON CONTROL OF FLEAS

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I hate fleas.  I have been at war with them ever since I brought the first little buggers on the boat back in 2009.  That’s right… I brought them on board.  At the time, Tracy and I only had the three cats and they were never allowed off the boat…. so you can imagine our surprise when Junie, our runt Maine Coon, started scratching and pulling at her hair.  (Of the three cats, she reacts the most violently when fleas get on her skin.  Yogi, a neutered Russian Blue male and Boo-Boo a calico spayed female don’t seem to care regardless of how many fleas they have under their fur.)

Junie and Yogi at the end of the finger pier.

Junie and Yogi at the end of the finger pier.

At the time, I worked at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds on the Grounds Crew.  We were reclaiming a lot of grasslands that had been allowed to “go back to nature”.  But when snakes began calmly slithering into some of the buildings where sensitive testing was going on, the powers-that-be decided that it was time that someone mowed the lawn.  That was my job.  When I wasn’t sitting on a Zero-Turn mower, I was swinging a weed-wacker chopping grass and mowing hay.  For a brief moment, we had the Edgewood Arsenal looking as manicured as something out of a science fiction movie set.  But then, a new administration took over.  The military was ordered to cut back and apparently how their bases looked was not high on their priorities.  However, during the time they did care, I was ass-deep in freshly cut field grass, lawn grass and all kinds of weeds and undergrowth… hence the fleas.

Fleas don’t care whom they suck blood from just as long as they suck blood.  In the field, I was just as tasty a morsel as the feral cat, coyote, deer or ground hog.

Fleas on a boat are no laughing matter.  Fleas anywhere are no laughing matter.  They can carry all kind of parasites and Robert Burns to the contrary (although his poem is to a louse), they killed a lot of people in the past by being carriers of diseases like the Plague.

I have a friend who is also at war with fleas.  He lives in a seniors-only apartment complex and shares his apartment with two cats who are also never allowed out of the apartment let alone the building.  Yet, his place is filled with the jumping little buggers.  The culprits there are his neighbors.  They bring their flea infested dogs back from a walk outside and the fleas find their way through the floorboards and through any nook or cranny into his apartment and on to his cats.  He’s tried bombing, spraying and all kinds of topicals, but never gets on top of his problem because he cannot get his neighbors to control theirs.  The fleas even attacked him and, at one point, he sprayed his legs and arms with a commercial flea killing product and ended up with serious chemical burns.  (The can did say not to do it, but my friend was desperate and stubborn.)

A boat is a different matter.  It comes with its own unique set of problems.  The boat is basically a closed environment.  When the fleas first manifested themselves back in 09, Tracy and I bombed the boat with a commercial fogger and bathed the cats with a cat-anti flea shampoo.  Only a cat owner can know the joys of bathing an animal that has 20 incredibly sharp talon like claws at the end of their little paws that they can distend and engage the moment their tails touch the water.  The first time we bathed the cats turned into a fiasco.  Boo-Boo and Yogi were okay… they grumbled and growled but that was about it.  Junie was another matter.  She wanted nothing to do with the water, the soap, the towel, you name it.

Things were going smoothly, relatively speaking.  We took the cats one at a time out into the cockpit of the boat and in the warm sun, suds them up and rinsed them off.   Then we let them walk around the deck until they were dry.  Junie was squirrming, but otherwise was fine until I picked her up to rinse her off.  Suddenly, she slapped at the back of my hand with a paw, claws out.  One claw hit the vein the runs between my middle finger and my ring finger on the back of my left hand and punctured it.  It wasn’t just a pin prick, but a deep puncture.  Blood started flowing everywhere.  And not just a little trickle…

Tracy does not react well to blood.  So there I was, trying to hand her a squirming cat.  The blood was flowing over my hand and into the cockpit of the boat.  Tracy was trying not to faint and/or throw up.  She managed to get a towel around the cat and I managed to get a dirty towel from the used towel bin to use as a pressure bandage on the wound.  Fortunately, I’m a fast healer and the blood stopped relatively quickly, but the back of my hand was black & blue for over a week.  In the end, the back of the boat looked like a war zone.  But the cats had been bathed.  The fleas on their bodies, drowned.  We boxed the cats up in their carriers, bombed the boat and took the cats for a drive until the fogger had had a chance to do its work.

The next year, the fleas came back.  I was still working at APG.  We bathed the cats and fogged the boat again.  Only this time, when I bathed the cats, I also wore my leather work gloves to prevent getting clawed like I did the year before.

The fleas came back every summer… even after I stopped working at APG and retired to write full time.  It was also getting harder and harder to kill them.  The fogging and the topicals were becoming less and less effective.  It was becoming apparent that the fleas were building up an immunity to our treatments… and why not.

As I said, a boat is a closed environment.  Any flea that survived the initial fogging would then lay eggs and give rise to a generation in which some, if not all, of the fleas were immune to the fogging.  The same could be said for the topicals.  We still used them.  We even alternated brands each month.  Basically, all we were doing was getting things to a tolerable level and then waiting for winter to forced the littler buggers into their hibernation period.

Then came the summer of 2015.  The first time the temperature hit 90-degrees, the fleas erupted in a blossoming of little bodies that could be seen on anything white.  One morning, Tracy took a swatch of duct tape and trapped over 25 fleas in the glue and that was just from one sock.

Sahara -- a rescue -- presumed pit/boxer cross -- guarding my favorite pipe.

Sahara — a rescue — presumed pit/boxer cross — guarding my favorite pipe.

By now our menagerie of rescued animals had grown to include not only the three cats, but two ferrets, a black-capped conure and a juvenile pit bull/boxer cross.  Birds and ferrets do not react well to the over use of poisons especially in such an enclosed area as a 26-ft. sailboat.  I tried some commercial “natural” remedies such as the VET’S BEST products and had some limited success with them.  (I found their flea & tick spray great for the see’m? kill’m times;  But they did not seem to work on the long term problem.  The fleas were still jumping on our socks even after we sprayed the floors and cushions and all the surfaces in the boat.  We needed to kill them where they nested, to break up their life cycle.  Then I went on the internet…

Fleas are ancient.  Chinese paleontologists have found evidence of them as far back as 165-million years ago.  They are also mentioned in the Bible (I Samuel 24:14 and 26:20.)  So I had to figure that somewhere, sometime, someone had concocted a home brew that would take care of the little buggers… and I found one.

Actually I found several, but with cats, dogs, ferrets and a parrot to worry about, I had to be very careful which method I chose since some things that are okay for dogs are total no-nos for cats and ferrets and a lot of things that are okay for the four-legged mammals are not good for the bird to be exposed to.

So here’s what I settled on — Apple cider vinegar cut with water and witch hazel.  I generally go with 75% vinegar, 25% water with a healthy splash of witch hazel.  This is what I spray in and around the boat… not on the animals.  On the animals, I still use the VET’S BEST flea and tick spray.  As I said, the Vet’s Best is great for a see’m/kill’m solution.  But I was looking for something that would attack the fleas where they lived and the vinegar/witch hazel combo seemed to do the job.

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The first problem was trying to figure out where the fleas were nesting.  My initial guess was the bilge.  It runs the length of the boat under the floor boards.  I suspected the bilge because of the dog.  During the winter, she spends a lot of time at my feet, lounging on the floor of the main cabin, getting up now and then to eat or drink.  But in the summer of 2015, she wouldn’t even spend enough time on the floor to either eat or drink and when she did, she started flipping her head as if something had gotten into her ears.  And something did… the fleas.  And when she would come into the boat from the outside, it was jump through the hatch, two steps across the main cabin and a leap to the main bunk in the forward cabin.

homeremediesforfleas

One of the home remedies suggested pouring salt into things like crevasses and then vacuuming it out every couple of days, repeating the process over and over again.  Salt apparently dries fleas out.  It basically mummifies them.  Only salt is highly corrosive and I wasn’t sure that I wanted all that corrosive material underfoot on my boat.  That’s one of the reasons why I settled on the witch hazel formula.  Witch hazel is an astringent.  It would act just like the salt only it wouldn’t be anywhere near as corrosive.  As far as the vinegar went, it was the acetic acid in the vinegar that was supposed to be fatal to fleas but it wouldn’t harm the animals.

So I stared spraying the bilge and the floor boards covering the bilge.  I sprayed them once in the morning, once in the afternoon and once at night.  I also felt safe to spray my legs if I felt any fleas jump on me.  Apple cider vinegar is also supposed to be very good for the skin.  (I did not intend to suffer the chemical burns that my friend did.)

Within a couple of days, I began to notice that fewer and fewer fleas were jumping on me in the morning when I cross the cabin.  And then I began to notice that it was only in certain areas of the main cabin.

One of those areas was just below the main hatch by the engine compartment.  I use the expression “engine compartment” loosely.  My boat does not have an engine.  (“But how do you get in and out of your slip without an engine?” you might ask.  The answer is simple — I sail.  I taught sailing back in the mid-70s for the Annapolis Sailing School and the first thing I taught my students was not to rely on anything mechanical on board a boat because you can bet the hacienda that whatever it is will fail just at the most inopportune time… so you had better know how to arrive at or leave a dock under sail.)

Well since my boat does not have an engine, I use the flat space for the litter box.  Now back in 2009, we used to have a scratch pad under the box to enable the cats to clean their paws after they’ve done their business.  I say “used to” because, that first year of flea infestation, I took the pad outside to wash it and the minute it hit the sun, the pad was covered with the flea larva as they tried to escape the heat.  We’ve never used a box pad since.   But that didn’t mean that the fleas didn’t like the litter box area.

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With three cats, we use a large litter box with an internal screen for sifting the feces and clumps of litter.  It is also the kind with two litter boxes that nest in each other.  Fleas were nesting between the two boxes and every time I changed the litter, I was literally shaking a new generation of fleas out into the cabin.  So I began spraying the outside of the litter boxes, especially the one that nested inside the other.

Then there was the closet area.  Junie likes to climb into the closet and lay across the top of the hanging clothes or any bag of folded clothes she can find.  On a close examination of the clothes there, we found flea eggs under shirt collars and in the folds of almost all the clothes we had put away for the winter regardless of how many plastic bags we had put them in.  So we sprayed the closets down and took all the clothes to the laundry, then sprayed the clean clothes before we refolded them and restored them.  (Come the colder weather, we will take everything back to the laundry for a re-wash before wearing them.)

As the days wore on, the number of fleas was noticeably decreasing.  But they were still there.  I was missing something… but what?  And then I found it.  Well, actually, Sahara, the pit bull, found it.  We were playing on the main bunk with her tuggie toy, a brightly colored rope with a couple of knots in it.  She gave a yank and pulled the rope out of my hand.  Not expecting me to lose my grip, she fell against the shelf that extended the length of the bed and knocked off the front panel.  While I was fixing it, I suddenly realized that the bottom of the shelf was not attached to the hull, but to a hull-liner.  In other words, there was a slight gap between the hull of the boat and the liner to which all the interior cabinetry was attached… a space big enough for fleas to breed and grow.

So I went the length of the boat looking for any spot where that liner was slightly separated from the hull proper and I filled that “crack” with the vinegar/witch hazel brew.

It took a couple of weeks of daily treatments, but now I can walk across the main cabin and NO fleas jump on me or Tracy.  Every couple of days, I comb the cats.  Sometimes, there are no fleas.  Sometimes there are one or two.  Junie no longer scratches or pulls at her hair.  However, just because there appears to be a radical reduction in the number of fleas on the boat, I cannot say that the boat is flea free.  I still take Sahara for walks in an area that has a lot of feral animals.  I’ve seen fleas hop on to her and ticks climb her legs.  Her short sandy hair and white socks makes them east to spot.  I try to get them off before I take her back on the boat, but I can’t be 100% sure that I accomplish that goal.  Hence the continued spraying of the boat’s interior.

Oh… I also spray the boat’s exterior, too.  I found fleas living in the tarps and on the running rigging… basically anywhere the cats or dog had lain in the sun or shade. (The cats are allowed on the deck, but only if they have their harnesses on.)

As things stand, the flea problem seems to be under control.  Tracy no longer has to dab her socks with duct tape to clear them of bugs in the morning.  The dog has gone back to eating and drinking on the floor above the bilge.  And the cats are acting.. well… like cats.  The only down side, if you can call it one, is that my boat smells like salad dressing… but I can live with that.

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Playing with Hemingway’s Cats

Ernest Hemingway was a cat person.  So much so that he left a trust for his cats in his will.  If you go to Key West, you will find that trust taking care of the decedents of Hemingway’s original cats at the Hemingway Home. HemHouse-01_168_148_s_cy_c_c_0_0_100_bor1_c3b8a5  The cats are allowed to roam free.  If you stay at the small hotel on Duval Street that backs to the Hemingway House on Whitehead Street, the cats will be found climbing all over you especially at meal times.  You can always tell a Hemingway cat… they are polydactyl… that is, they have six toes on each paw.

I have been a Hemingway fan ever since I was first forced to read a short story of his in grade school back in the 1960s.  That story, A Day’s Wait, was the one about the boy who thought he was going to die.  He was used to the Celsius and not the Fahrenheit systems and when he heard his parents talking about his temperature, he spent the day waiting to die because he thought his fever was too high.

Mr. Brown assigned that story along with Leiningen Versus the Ants.  I remember the Leiningen story because it was turned into the movie NAKED JUNGLE with Charleton Heston and Elanore Parker. 15206ce5f13effaaf7c36179c3f7bece  (As a teen, I had the biggest puppy love crush on that woman.)  But it wasn’t until high school and THE SUN ALSO RISES that my love affair with Hemingway really took off.

Mr. Lovelace assigned that book and Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATSBY back to back.  I was introduced to a lot of great writing back then, but no one held my attention as did Hemingway.

I set out to read everything I could get my hands on.  Fortunately, the school library had a treasure trove of Hemingway’s works, biographies and critiques and soon, if you were looking for me, you would find me sitting on the floor of the library’s second landing thumbing through a first edition of DEATH IN THE AFTERNOON.

With Hemingway came a love of all things Spanish.  When I was seventeen, I got the chance to live out a major fantasy when Jose Greco invited me to Spain to spend a summer.  It gave me the perfect chance to walk in Hemingway’s footsteps.  (See my blog, BIRD WATCHING WITH GEORGE HAMILTON.)

That was the summer of 1967.  Now I have to skip ahead to the summer of ‘77.  I was married and living in Chestertown, Maryland.  James A. Michener was on the eastern shore researching a new book. Michener When it came out it would be called, appropriately, CHESAPEAKE.  But it was CENTENNIAL that I had my eyes on.

Michener was signing books in the little bookstore in Church Hill, MD and that was only a quick car ride down Rt. 213 from where I lived.  I figured it was a perfect way to get everyone I knew a great Christmas gift.  So, I packed my wife and kids in the car and hurried over to the book store to buy 13 copies of CENTENNIAL.  That year, everyone on my Christmas list got a signed first edition James A. Michener for the holidays.  (I thought it was a great gift.  But to the recipients, it went over like a pregnant pole-vaulter.)

I also took along my personal copies of HAWAII, CARAVANS, THE SOURCE, THE DRIFTERS, BRIDGES AT TOKO-RI, TALES OF THE SOUTH PACIFIC and IBERIA.  I was hoping I could get him to sign them, too.  (He did.)

Now, meeting Michener was a real kick.  He was sitting behind a small table in an equally small and unassuming book store signing copies of his latest work.  There weren’t many people in the store so I waited for my chance to step up to the table with both my arms and my wife’s arms filled with copies of his books.  He looked at me and asked, “Christmas?”

I smiled and answered, “It seemed like a good idea.”  He laughed and we began talking.  We had something in common.  While in Spain, I had become friends with Andres Vasquez,Andres Vazquez19 the number three ranked matador, at the time.  Michener also knew Andres.  In fact, he devoted a whole chapter to him in IBERIA.

At first, Michener thought I was jerking his chain, but as I recounted some of the adventures I had had while accompanying Andres on the corrida circuit, he warmed up considerably.   Then I told him that I, too, was a writer.  I had just published my first book, RAM: THE CAMPUS KILLINGS (which I no longer own the rights to which is why I rarely mention it).  Michener gave me his address and told me to send him a copy.  I did and for a while we became pen pals. (We lost touch when he was writing TEXAS.)

Not long ago, I posted a photograph of Michener’s typewriter on Facebook and Twitter.3  I did it for sentimental reasons.  I had received letters typed on it.  Michener, in his letters to me, simply put in a piece of paper and began typing.  No caps, virtually no punctuation, and no paragraphs.  Just a solid block of words from one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century.  In those letters, Michener told me about his connection to Hemingway’s THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA.

At the time, LIFE Magazine was a weekly photo-news publication.  According to Michener, LIFE’s editors wanted to add fiction to the format.  So they contracted with Ernest Hemingway for a short story.  He sent them THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA.  According to Michener, Hemingway had had the story sitting in an old trunk.  He had been saving it for a special occasion and LIFE Magazine seemed like the perfect venue for it.  It was the last piece of literature that Hemingway published in his lifetime… kind of the icing on the cake.  Two years later, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.

The editors at LIFE read the story and were dumbfounded.  They literally did not know what they had.  Not sure what to do, they secretly sent a copy of the story to Michener who was on assignment in the Far East for THE SATURDAY EVENING POST writing a series of articles on the Korean War.

He said, he read the galley proofs in a fox hole and reported to LIFE that they had a conundrum.  The Editors wanted to include fiction in LIFE.  Hemingway had given them what was arguably one of the greatest pieces of literature written in the 20th Century.  If they published the story, they would be setting the bar of their fiction endeavor so high that no other writer would ever come close and their readers would be terribly disappointed.

Well, on September 8, 1952 they ignored Michener’s advice and published the story and put Ernest Hemingway’s photo on the cover of the magazine. $_35

I was in seventh heaven.  James A. Michener had given me inside scoop on my number one idol… kind of story that rarely makes it into print.  As a rabid fan, it doesn’t get any better than that.  Oh, by the way, the next writer they asked to contribute to the next LIFE literary issue was Michener.  He gave them BRIDGES AT TOKO-RI. 7-6-53

Now, we have to skip ahead to the 1990s.  Life had radically changed for me.  I was divorced, living in Southbury, CT and working for a small, regional newspaper as a sports writer/photographer.  Early in 1990, I had a gall bladder operation that went south and my pancreas ruptured.  I spent a lot of time in the hospital, so much time that the morgue attendants had me on their “soon to be admitted” pool at 9 to 5 odds.  Long story short, they were very disappointed when I didn’t show up wrapped in a gray blanket.  (I didn’t learn about the pool until well after I was out of the hospital so I never got the chance to bet on myself.)

When I was discharged from the hospital, I was literally half the man I used to be having lost over 100 pounds.  So to get back into some semblance of shape, I bought a Trek 830 Antelope

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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and began cycling.  The paper had had to hire another sports writer/photographer, but they kept me on as a feature writer and photographer and I decided to cycle to all my assignments.  It was during that time that I got to meet and photograph people like President Reagan, VP. Bush, Sen. Libby Dole, Sen./Gov. Lowell Weicker and others.  I also picked up a bit of an unsavory reputation.  The locals saw me on that Trek so much that everyone thought that I had a drinking problem and that my driver’s license had been revoked.  It’s amazing how rumors start in a small town and it’s also amazing how hard it is to disprove them even when they see you behind the wheel of a car.

At the end of that particular cycling season, I checked my odometer and discovered that I had cycled over 1500 miles.  Hell, I thought, that’s practically half way across the country.  Then it hit me… why not go all the way?

So, that’s just what I did.  After spending all that time in the hospital, I figured why put things off.  You never know if the next day is going to be your last.  So I saved up my money, bought a small Walrus Tent and on one cold Easter Sunday morning, packed up my panniers and set off to see America.

I had just finished reading John McFee’s ON CONTROL OF NATURE and there were things I wanted to see, like the dam that’s been keeping the Mississippi River from changing course and joining with the Atchafalaya as it has been trying to do for the last hundred years; at least a half a dozen Civil War battlefields; and my best friend from prep school who was living in New Orleans.

So with a severely edited copy of the WOODALL CAMPING DIRECTORY tucked away in one of my panniers, I set out on my own, personal cross country odyssey.  First target, the Delaware Water Gap, then Havre de Grace, MD; Washington, D.C.; my grandfather’s grave in Arlington National Cemetary; Front Royal, VA and the Sky Line Drive; Chattanooga, TN and the Chickamauga Battlefield; Mississippi and the route General Grierson took that was the inspiration for the John Wayne movie, THE HORSE SOLDIERS; New Orleans; the dam on the Mississippi.

I was right on schedule until I broke a spoke behind my freewheel cycling out of the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, OK and had to put my bike up for repairs and a general tune up.  Not that it mattered.  I was in no rush to go anywhere fast.  It looked like I was going to be sidelined in Oklahoma City for about a week.  There were all kinds of things I could do there and was planning to do until someone mentioned the Hemingway Days Festival in Key West, FL and I thought… why not.

So while my bicycle was in the shop, I put my gear in storage, packed a pannier full of clothes and hopped a plane for Dallas and then another one to Miami and rented a car for the final run to Key West.  It was party city from practically the moment I parked the car.  I did a lot of sightseeing and a lot of club soda drinking.  (Pancreas injuries and alcohol do not go well together.)

There were all kinds of lectures, book signings from several major authors and a whole host of things to do.  I mean, it was Key West for crying out loud.  Word soon got around that I was in the process of cycling across the country.  People asked me all kinds of questions.  Most of them centered on wasn’t it a dangerous thing to do, cycling all alone across the country.  I had never considered it dangerous, but obviously a lot of people did.

Then one night I attended the storytelling contest and I was half badgered, half cajoled into telling one.  I told a ghost story that actually happened to me while at college and it surprised the hell out of me when I won and got into the finals.  Then it surprised the hell out of me even more when I won that, too.  I told a story about getting gored at a fighting bull breeding farm in Spain.  It really didn’t happen, but I have a nasty scar on my leg and with some borrowed lipstick to high light it, people thought it was the honest truth.  The funny thing about it, was that the storytelling contest wasn’t even in Ernest Hemingway’s honor, but his brother, Leicester.  Leicester Hemingway was Ernest’s younger brother.  He kind of falls through the cracks in history because of the fame his older brother achieved, but he was a writer in his own right and achieved some notoriety with a biography of his older brother.

There were three contests associated with the festival: a writing contest (in honor of Ernest); a look-alike contest (independently run by SLOPPY JOE’S); and the storytelling contest (in honor of Leicester).  Why Leicester and not Ernest?  While Ernest was locked away in the garret room on his Key West estate, Leicester was out making friends.  Of the two, he appears to have been the more gregarious.  He was also described as the kind of man who could walk into a strange bar crowded with people and quietly begin to tell the bartender a story and within minutes, have everyone silent and listening to him.  Apparently the man had a unique, compelling quality to his voice and was one hell-of-a raconteur.

One of the prizes for winning the storytelling contest was a one-on-one with the Hemingway family at the Hemingway Home, drinks and dinner, if I remember correctly.  There, I got to meet members from the Ernest side of the family; and members from the Leicester side of the family, his wife, Doris Hemingway, Leicester’s daughters Hillary Hilary and Anne Hemingway Feuer, an artist who donated several pieces of autographed stained glass works as storytelling prizes.  Hillary’s husband Jeff Lindsay was also there.Jeff Jeff acted as the MC for the storytelling contest. (DEXTER was still an embryo in his deviously creative brilliant mind.)

Needless to say, I was in seventh heaven.  I was sitting in my idol’s house, in one of his chairs,  meeting members of his family and his brother’s family and playing with his cats.  I’m not normally a cat person, but some of his felines remembered me from the hotel and were climbing over my lap and rubbing against my legs looking for a hand out from Mr. Soft-touch, when Leicester’s wife, Doris walked by.  She paused in front of me and said, “Eric, do you know… you look more like Ernest did when he lived here than any of the old men trying to look like him down at Sloppy Joe’s.  They are trying to look like Papa Hemingway.  When Ernest lived here, he was still the youngish, big game hunter/deep sea fisherman, not the old man in the Karsh portrait.”

Ernest Hemingway stands with a fishing rod and a marlin, while Captain Joe Russell from Key West looks on. Hemingway (1899-1961), American writer, is known for his masculine writing style and his numerous novels such as , and . 20th century Probably Florida

Ernest Hemingway stands with a fishing rod and a marlin, while Captain Joe Russell from Key West looks on. Hemingway (1899-1961), American writer, is known for his masculine writing style and his numerous novels such as , and . 20th century Probably Florida

I was stunned.  I thanked her for the complement and the next day ran down to Sloppy Joes and bought one of the t-shirts with the younger Hemingway featured and wore it for the next 12-years.  (It’s no longer available, but then, I look more like Papa Hemingway now than I do the younger version.) download (2)

When the week was over, I was told that I would have to return the next year to defend my storytelling title.  I promised I would.  Back in Oklahoma City, I picked up my Trek and continued cycling west.  I had to photograph a bench at a nursing home in Shattuck, Oklahoma; photograph the tree that was planted to honor the only tree in the Llano Escatado; and eventually cycle the back half of Route 66 into Pasadena, California.  However, my one and only regret on the trip is that I didn’t have someone take my picture standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona.

But the story doesn’t end there.  I got to play with Hemingway’s cats two more times.  The next year, I went back to Key West to defend my storytelling contest and despite the ribbing I took from Hillary and Jeff about having driven down and not cycled, I won again.  That, in turn, prompted another trip to Key West to defend my two-time winning storytelling title.  Only the third time, I cycled down to Key West from Connecticut.

I didn’t win that year.  But it didn’t matter.  The Leicester Hemingway connection was worth its weight in memory gold, I had a great tan from all the cycling… and then there were the cats. cat-pic-Wilhelmina-Harvey_168_148_s_cy_c_c_0_0_100_bor1_c3b8a5    Cat Photos by Rob O’Neal from Hemingwayhome.com.

If you liked this blog, tell a friend and then check out my other writings at:

http://www.amazon.com/Eric-B.-Ruark/e/B001KDSEJU/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1425790245&sr=1-2-ent

or

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/Eric-B-Ruark?store=ebook&keyword=Eric+B.+Ruark

Thank you.