For as long as I live, I will never reach red. See, I’m orange. I’ve always been orange. I’ll be orange even when my time comes. When I was littler I was green but that quickly changed to orange. Everyone I know is green. They’ll be green until they reach orange. Ozella says people are like leaves on a tree. They’re born green, live green, turn orange, then red, and at the end brown out. She says I’m a leaf that turned orange long before my autumn started. This made my insides skip over red and go straight to brown; that’s I’m sicker in there than on the outside. Red would have given me more time. But I’ll never reach red. Ozella tells me I’m also a spark. That I can light up a room. My mom says I’m just a headache. I can make her so mad, she turns red. In the face! She shouts, “Daniel Wilbur Sullivan.” And when I refuse to do something her way she adds, “Don’t make me come up there.” I yell, “Come up here. See if I care.” Then she slams a pan or two, shoves a chair against the kitchen table. This morning after she banged the oven door, she hollered, “Young man, if you expect to turn ten years old next month…” I don’t mean to make her mad, but sometimes I just want to do what I want to do. See, I hate the Routine. I’ve hated the Routine as long as I’ve been orange. And today Mom is driving me to an appointment with the man who forced the Routine on me. I once saw a TV movie where the bad guy threatened the good guy with a sizzling hot poker, held it right up to his eye. The bad guy should have used the Routine instead. The good guy would be more than happy to tell where he’s hiding the treasure. Every morning before I start the Routine, I resist Mom for as long as I can. Until her feet pound up the stairs. That’s when I dash into the bathroom. Wish it had a lock. Oops, I hear her angry feet. “Okay. Okay,” I yell, running barefoot into the bathroom. I turn on the tub as the doorknob rattles. “Don’t come in, Mom. I’m too grown.” That always works. The doorknob quiets. See. Mom shouts through the door, “I’m timing fifteen minutes.” Her feet thump back down the stairs so hard I think she’ll fall through. “And we leave in forty,” she calls from the landing. I’m wheezing and holding my hand over my heart, worrying she’d seen me run and she’ll race me to the doctors. But she didn’t. I pull off my t-shirt and push down my pajama pants and stomp them into a pile, along with my shirt. Soon the water is six inches and steamy. I’d give anything for a bubble bath. But I can’t. Not during the Routine. Today I have to bathe in what I call milk. I grab a box off the toilet back, measure out a cup of powdered medicine, then sprinkle it into the water. The smell stings my nose, and when my back gets wet, my cracked sores sting but they feel softer after drying. I wish I could have toys while I soak. Two battling submarines would make a perfect distraction. But Mom and the Routine won’t let me. After a while, Mom’s kitchen echo drifts upstairs. “Are you watching the time?” I’m out, pat a towel over my body, and slip into the underwear and jeans she placed by the sink. Then more Routine. I use a cotton swab to dab another white medicine on my shoulders. Mom will do my back. Before I know it, she stands behind me with a flat hand out and demands the bottle. Her pressed lips hold back what she truly feels. She’s not mad at me. It’s the Routine. See, she hates it, too. Her pinched eyes and deep thinking are part of the Routine, like her delicate care. When her right hand dabs up and down my back, she uses special gentleness. The same way her thumb soothes one of my achy knuckles when I sit on her lap in the big chair. That’s where we tell each other everything. During the Routine we say nothing, but we think the same thing—how it will end. Mom nudges my arm and turns me so she can reach my back. I don’t think she realizes what she just did. I face the mirror over the sink. And I don’t like mirrors. They show me the truth, all of it. They remind me why I’ll never reach red. I’m so small my nose only comes up level with the counter edge. When I get up on my tiptoes I can see my whole head in the mirror. My front teeth poke out a little. My skin is pale and my forehead veins look like blue and red lines on a road map. If I had hair on my bulgy head, I’d cut it long. School bullies call me Bulb Head. Ozella says I look like an old man because God made me wise to get me ready for a special purpose. I hate mirrors. And I hate doctors. My doctor created the Routine. When I was green and the sores first appeared he made Mom soak my back in medicine that stunk and burned and made me hate him. I cried during every Routine, stomped my feet and slapped at Mom’s arms. I hated her, too, for putting me through that. I also took a lot of pills—red ones, pink ones, ones with strange symbols. I choked on the big ones. Now Mom lines up the pills on my breakfast plate and cuts the big ones in half. Liquid medicines leave a metal taste on my tongue, which makes food taste worse than the medicine. Ozella says the doctor is just being helpful and that it’s for my own good. I don’t see why good should be so hurtful. One of these days I’ll be free of it all. Then I’ll tear up my prescriptions and make confetti while I run through the backyard. While Mom continues to dab, one of my questions slips out, kind of casual like. That’s another bad part of the Routine. I talk about things that hurt me. “Mom, am I too ugly to love?” I turn my head a little left and right, look in the mirror where I should have eyebrows, where there are only blue veins. Have I really reached ugly? Mom’s stops dabbing her hand. “Sweetie, what made you ask that?” Her pinched look relaxes. “I love you.” “I know that.” She dabs again. “You’re beautiful, and a lot of people love you.” “Mom, boys aren’t beautiful, they’re handsome, and we don’t know a lot of people.” She seems to forget that we live in a small town, and we’re so far out that the school bus won’t reach here. Or maybe that’s because of me. “Let me guess who started this. That Dewalt boy.” “Uh-huh.” “I’m going over to his house and pin back his ears. His mother’s, too.” I wish she hadn’t mentioned ears. Now I notice mine. “Mom, you’ll make Dewalt meaner. He might actually touch me, or hit me.” “Well, I can’t just stand back—“ “Yes, you can.” I wouldn’t be surprised if Dewalt is the doctor’s son—Tormentor and Mini-Tormentor. Not all sixth-graders are so vicious. But he’s the Gang of Three leader and my school’s infamous bad guy. I hate Dewalt. I don’t know why hate comes so easily these days. I try hard to live by the meaning of orange. You know, God-fearing and respectful. Ozella says being a good boy is my most endearing quality. So I guess it’s not really hate. It’s more like frustration since I have no power to change anything. But I definitely hate the Routine and it’s okay to do that. Mom straightens and holds out her right hand splattered with medicine. I can see her eyes widen like they do whenever she gets a new idea I know will backfire. Mom knows nothing about dealing with bullies. “I could talk to your principal,” she says. “You do and I’ll run away from home.” “Danny Sullivan, don’t even joke about that.” “I mean it, Mom.” “Okay, okay,” she says, and gives my arm a gentle pat. “You’re done. Now go get dressed. We’re short on time.” She stays and cleans up my bathroom mess. Before I’m out in the hall, I know we’re headed for a screaming match because I still don’t want to go to town. I’d rather stay in my room. The only place in the world where I’m safe. And normal. My room is kept the way I like it, a boy’s room. Toys and games everywhere. Superhero posters tacked on the walls—Superman’s my favorite. My bed stays unmade. And I do boy stuff in here. I like to play army and wear a green helmet. My yardstick transforms into a rifle or sword or bazooka or atomic blaster and I fight off bandits, pirates, aliens, even hordes of Dewalts. The mattress edge is my trench, and I spy over the pillow sandbags with my trusty weapon cocked and aimed. Then I blast them, blast them all. Sometimes at night I wake up Mom, and through the wall she yells, “Daniel Wilbur Sullivan, don’t make me come in there.” I scurry back up on the footstool, climb into bed, and peek over the covers in case any bandits aren’t scared away. Of course, I do serious stuff, too—finish my homework, keep a computer diary, sit at my window and watch nature. Last summer I made my biggest wish ever when the moon was the brightest blue I’d seen since turning orange. See, I want a hug from my dad, but I haven’t met him yet. This wish will come true, and I have faith. I plan to find him. I’d rather sit at my window than get dressed, but Mom is serious this time. I hear her rush around in her room and bump drawers. Maybe I can slow her down. Gosh, I can’t find my favorite shirt. My shoelaces accidentally snap. My clock has the wrong time. No, she’s too smart. Besides, I’ve tried those excuses before. Any minute now I expect to hear her call my full name. I give in and tug an orange turtleneck shirt over my bald head. As I sit on the floor for orange socks and black sneakers, I think about the other reasons why I’m acting so difficult. Monsters. They’re all around me. Dewalt told me about them in first grade. The first time I was allowed around other kids. He found me at recess. Instead of the usual arm twisting, he sang his made-up song. “Jack, Jack cooks your meat…chops you neat…eats your feet.” Jawless Jack, the swamp ogre. The scariest part is Jack lives behind my house, across our back field in the Black Swamp. We can only get to town by going through the swamp. Jack will be out there, wading through the greasy water or lurking behind a slimy green tree. I don’t want to be spareribs. Here I am almost ten years old, a big boy, and I still believe in monsters. I’m yellow, the color of scared. But Jack isn’t the only monster. Others terrorize Oakdale. One of them is the doctor who ruined my bravery. The one who started the Routine. Doc Pickett collects bones like Jawless Jack—decayed teeth all lined up above his rolltop desk. You already know Dewalt breaks bones. He and his gang will sneak into downtown so they can poke fun at the decorations for next month’s Halloween Festival. But the last monster’s bones are so rickety and bumpy they make townsfolk cringe. He hides from people as much as he can. He’s afraid they’ll throw rocks at him and chase him into the Black Swamp like they did Jawless Jack. Of them all, he’s the scariest monster. Color him Me.
First, he chases the girl in white only to discover she’s a glamorous enigma only interested in breaking hearts. Mary, however, is a spunky small town girl defending her little bakery from Ron’s invading chocolate shop. He can’t help but fall for her. But after uncovering Mary’s astonishing and never-imagined secret, he’s challenged—he could destroy her career in favor of his. But what about love? Ron is about to swallow the hardest candy of all. Scruples.
The moment chocolate touched her lips I fell in love. And it was the way she worked that piece of nugget that grabbed my heart. She sat on a stool of a portable bar rolled out to serve the other ticket holders, and with her forefinger and thumb she held a chocolate morsel, perhaps cream-filled, to her wonderful red lips that pressed, searched, and savored within a coy grin. She giggled as three tuxedo clad waiters elbowed each other and enticed her with silver serving trays lined with more chocolates. She taunted these boys by raising one knee a bit too high as she shifted her crossed legs, loving the attention. Waiters in New York interested in a woman? That right there proved her hypnotic prowess. She wore a hip-hugging white cocktail dress that plunged into a V-style front―a healthy deep front, I might add. A wide brim, white laced hat hid her tucked hair while drooping just enough to share a glimpse of her white sunglasses. I had a thing for those as well. But something about this girl said there was more to her than just being a beautiful plaything. I needed to understand why this time my libido had been challenged with what could be interpreted as respectable intentions. For me, that’s saying a lot. But could I handle her? I’d never loved anyone, except for my parents, which was difficult to do at times. This young woman I’d been watching made me feel she needed my protection, especially from guys like me. All I ever cared about was slipping into the “candy store,” and a box of chocolates accomplished that, or an occasional diamond. Still, she represented my two favorite subjects, chocolate―my profession—and sex―my recreation. Being a connoisseur of both, I could tell she obviously adored them as well. I liked a girl who knew how to explore the aphrodisiac effect, really got off on it, you know. As a young executive attending this National Chocolate Artisan Contest to scope out the other chocolatiers and their sculptures, I had been leaning against a column to observe the crowded convention lobby when I noticed the girl’s talent. I thought about what I would say to her though she was already an expert, in more ways than one. Hold it on your tongue. Let the delicacy melt before you smear the paste over the roof of your mouth. Okay, press and hold it there. That’s it. Close your eyes and seek the cinnamon, the coffee, the vanilla, the chili, or whatever exotic flavor that inspired you. Now swallow, but delicately, don’t choke. If your eyes roll back into your head, live with it. That’s the whole point. But who was she? I’d been coming to this annual convention for three years and had never seen her here before. Maybe she was a model in town for a photo shoot with a glamorous fashion magazine. Maybe she was an actress, someone famous behind those sunglasses or an undiscovered starlet willing to trade a little bump-and-tickle with a movie producer for a screen test. Perhaps she was a father’s little girl playing grownup in her mother’s favorite dress, or a spoiled kept one waiting on her sugar daddy to join her for margaritas. She was a mystery. A good one, too. A lovely, voluptuous tease who delighted in making the other women in this room envy her while raising the blood pressure of every man around her, especially mine. My heart was about to explode, but she could kill me, over and over. I didn’t need blood in my brain. Perhaps I should become a movie mogul or at least have a business card claiming to be one. Thanks to her luscious lips, though, my day’s focus had been ruined. At 3 a.m. this morning I left my Vermont apartment and actually rode a crowded bus all the way into upper Manhattan. I hadn’t been on a bus since my frat boy days when my brothers and I rode into Stamford and trashed their snooty Squash Club. I could have driven but I decided to save the money rather than pay for gas, tolls, and downtown parking. I could have easily afforded all of it, but since I opened a small business, cash, for once in my life, had become a precious commodity. My shop was also the reason I attended this contest. The event had launched many chocolatiers into the limelight, and I planned to enter next year’s competition, announced as the series last, for the win. It’d bring extra attention to my store, plus it would resolve a little dispute I’ve had with my father who didn’t believe the marketplace had a sustainable appetite for fine chocolates. I planned to prove him wrong. If along the way I deflated the man’s ego, even a little, which he deserved, so be it. I had been admiring a rose bush sculpted with the most fragile chocolate flower petals and figuring out how to mold them when I spotted the girl in white. Now I couldn’t think of anything but her red lips. I only needed to walk over and say hello, charm her with my wit, show her my hot-blooded face. She wasn’t out of my league. Even if she didn’t care for me, it’d still be fun watching her lips tell me to butter my thumb, shove it up my rectum, and set myself to spinning. Or I could be clever, of course, slip up behind her, pretend to be a waiter, and ask, “Ma’am, cognac cream filled truffle?” I hoped she liked white chocolate. If she preferred hers dark, I was dead. I straightened my tie and wrapped my raincoat over my arm. How was my breath? I cupped one hand over my mouth and nose. Raspberry. Not bad. Okay, I’d go for broke. The only harm was not trying. I took two paces, maybe three when a portly man wearing a too-tight blue suit stepped into my path. His frizzy windblown comb-over made his head twice the size it should be. He blocked my view of the girl in white. “Ron Titan!” the guy bellowed, happy face blown up like a balloon. “It is you.” Not now, I screamed in my head. Not now! “Mr. Hammond, hello.” He took my hand and shook it until my jaw rattled like his jowls. He was an okay Joe, a sales rep for an importer specializing in Malaysian alkalized cocoa powders used in premium drink mixes. A little pushy for my taste. He’d been selling to my old man’s corporation since I was a kid. “Little Ronnie Titan,” he said as I got my wrecked hand back, flexing my throbbing fingers. “Grown up tall and strong like your father. I haven’t seen you since you returned from college. That’s what, four years now?” “Yes, sir, it’s been―” I leaned left to see the girl but Hammond’s big head remained in my way. “How’s everything at Titan Foods, the number six confectionary in the nation? That’s quite an accomplishment for your family and a great account for me. A Titan Bar is still my favorite. How’s your dad? I’m due to see him next month.” “He’s fine, sir. He’s―” I leaned right and Hammond did the same. “Has he been on the back nine lately? We used to deuce up all the time.” “I don’t think so. He’s―” I rocked left again. He weaved left. “Sand traps were his nemesis. He bends a five iron over his knee faster than any man I’ve known. Say, how goes the job? You’re never around during my quarterly visits. Not hiding from me, are you?” “Of course not. I was assigned . . . um, responsible for―” Get out of my way, fool. I can’t see the girl. “Bet you’re making your old man proud. How’s your mom?” “She’s doing great. She’s―” “Nice lady, full of patience.” Hammond winked. “You know your father. So what brings you here, Ronnie? I didn’t know you went out for events like this.” “I’m checking out the competition, you know, undercover.” Hammond pressed a hand against my arm as he hunched his shoulders. “Uh-oh, I just noticed your name tag. Ron Sheridan. That’s your mom’s maiden name. I’m spoiling something, aren’t I?” What an idiot! I finally got my arm back. “I bet your father sent you here,” Hammond said. “That man covers all the bases. Years ago when he was searching for a new distributor . . .” I caught a glimpse of the girl in white stepping down from her stool. Was she leaving? Please, not yet. She glided toward the exit with her nose up and hips swaying left and right to irritate the huddled ladies busily hating her perfect curves. The waiters followed along like hungry puppies pawing all over each other. I couldn’t let her get away, not now, especially after falling for her. I at least needed to know her name, hear her voice, smell her chocolate breath. “. . . forklift spikes,” Hammond continued, “can do a lot of damage to soft cartons.” “Sorry, Mr. Hammond, gotta run!” I stepped around Mr. Annoying and weaved through the crowd of champagne sipping chocolate munchers—the common people. I grabbed and nudged aside a few shoulders as I aimed for the exit. The girl in white reached the concierge who appeared to be as captivated with her as the waiters. Wow, now that was a nice backside. She probably worked out. Her white dress wrapped around all the important curves. Wish I had been born a wrinkle. The concierge appeared to ask her a question, and she flattened her right hand up against her chest as if to say, “Little old me?” He pulled out a small book and held it for her, then handed over a pen. She was signing an autograph. Excellent. Afterwards, she floated through the revolving doors, leaving the man to shoo away the disappointed and abandoned waiters crashing into the podium. I had to hurry. Fire! Fire! I wish I could yell. Everyone out of my way! Finally I bumped through the doors and darted into the chilly September morning. The girl had settled into the back seat of a cab, pulling away from the curb and leaving only a fleeting glimpse of her white sunglasses and red lips visible through the rain drizzled window. She left me standing on the bustling sidewalk with my left hand high in the air, “you forgot something” stuck in my throat, and disappointment bashing me in the breeze. Too late to hail another cab. Hers had disappeared into the blurry yellow stream. And like that, the most perfect young woman I’d ever seen rode out of my life. I sighed and lowered my arm. All I could do . . . Hey, the concierge― I just about mowed down an exiting couple as I pushed back through the door, knocking them into the glass, the man’s gesturing finger sweeping through my peripheral vision. “Excuse me,” I said to the startled concierge. “Yes, sir, may I help you?” “Absolutely. You might save my life.” “Are you ill, sir? Shall I call Emergency?” He reached for the phone. “No, no, nothing like that. But please, look in your autograph book and tell me the young lady’s name, the girl in the white dress.” “You recognized her, too?” “Uh, sure, sure, I just can’t recall her name.” The man recovered the small book and thumbed through several pages. He found the correct signature but stared at the writing. “That’s funny. She’s not who I thought she was.” He handed me the book which I groped as I focused on the name and delicate calligraphy, my dream about to come true. Angelique . . . Angelique? “What the hell do I do now?”
See, he’s has been lusting over a fine teen boy sunbathing on the neighboring building roof. As love blossoms for both, Troy suspects this boy is not what he appears to be. As Troy unravels the mystery, the truth leaves Troy disturbed and with a terrible choice. Either give him up to protect the boy’s identity, or sacrifice dance to stay with him. He can’t do both.
When a bomb laden drone explodes outside Nathan and Daniel’s eighth floor hotel window, they are forced to lead their own police work, not knowing just how close their would-be assassin hides. During an exchange of hostages, they are shocked to discover their suspect is not at all whom they alleged. He’s been hiding right under their noses.
My son was trying to kill me. The police claimed he fired the bullet a week ago that shattered the window of my ’62 Lincoln Continental while I was opening the door. They also said he two days ago veered the white car onto the sidewalk in an attempt to run me down, while I strolled into Nordstrom! But he ran away from home twenty-two years ago. So was I to believe my son had returned to seek revenge for whatever else that had wronged him? I could understand if it were true, though. Daniel Preston had always been ashamed of having a female impersonator for a father. I was born Joshua Nathanial Preston, but I was now known as the Great Nathan Davis, the South’s infamous silver screen star impressionist and owner of Maxine’s, the most prestigious stage show and disco. My public titled me Davis because of how well I portrayed Miss Davis. I could imitate them all―Hepburn, Dietrich, Crawford, Garbo, and, of course, Bette. She was the easiest. Slap on a stringy red wig, slash a lit cigarette through the air, repeat “Dah-ling” while slinging attitude, and voila! I just never had the hips for it. I was big boned and low slung. “Heavy onion,” those on the street called it. When wearing pumps I walked like Yogi Bear tiptoeing along a cliff edge, but the schtick made my act more popular. I might be at retirement with a bit of snow on my liver-spotted roof and I could use a nip and tuck on my fat jowls, but I was still one helluva entertainer. Atlanta loved me. My son should have as well. Years ago he quit high school, packed a bag, and walked out without so much as a note. Everyday when passing his bedroom, I could still see the ghost of his red finger-painted “Do Not Enter” sign screaming with an adolescent’s anger. I also suffered the twinges of stage fright. I could perform before a crowd of ten thousand but never could I face my own son. My deepest sorrow continued to be never knowing what happened to him. Back then, a few of my patrons claimed they spotted Daniel working construction, holding a road sign or some such menial thing. After he turned eighteen, a legal notice arrived saying he had been inducted into the army, and over the years I’d made numerous calls to Fort Benning to keep up with his progress. Later, after I heard of his honorable discharge, the chain of connection snapped clean. No doubt he went on to seek another manly career. Guess he needed to keep proving himself. Inspector Covetti called thirty minutes ago to say he would arrive with the evidence of his absurd conclusion. Instead, he sent Skippy, this plainclothes deputy standing inside my front door. “Sir, did you understand anything I said after arriving?” asked this prepubescent, police prodigy. He looked twelve years old with long legs, bony shoulders, and porcelain smooth cheeks, a pure twinkie, would drive even the most entrenched chicken hawk in this town to beat themselves with a baseball bat. He had naive blue eyes and a pimple on his narrow chin. And that bowl-shaped haircut with gelled black bangs swooping above the right eye and matted to his temple? Probably just discovered the Beatles. Obviously, he was too square to be a member of the sorority and too unworldly to understand the significance of owning track lighting. Plus he wore the most god-awful brown penny loafers. They resembled shit-stompers from the age of bell bottoms and mini skirts, atrocious in any decade. And he was an underling! Before this kid showed up I was unpacking the newly delivered gift basket sitting on my foyer table. The caviar had captured my eye, and I had hoped to enjoy the gourmet treat with crème fraiche on buttered toast points with poached eggs while I ate in the library and listened to Mancini’s sultry pianissimos. No quiet comfortable breakfast for me this morning thanks to this pipsqueak’s interruption. And on top of that, this caviar was trout instead of imported sturgeon roe. Egad! “Mister Davis, if you’ll please listen to me.” “Young man, is this not the height of rudeness? Didn’t they know who I am? If Good Morning America expects to earn my contract signature by sending this ode to bad etiquette, then they have their heads up their butts. Lord, free me from my pain.” “Sir?” “Phew, this is nasty.” I resealed the cap on the miserly one ounce jar, which should have signaled something was amiss, and stuffed the atrocity back through the clear blue cellophane. I scooped up what remained of this grocery store rubbish, along with its cheap retail silver bow, and headed straight for the kitchen, of course, holding the stink bomb at arm’s length. “Sir, wait just a minute.” “Do you see that?” I asked, whipping my hips around the table. “Even the eyes in my copy of Thomas Gainsborough’s ‘Blue Boy’ are tearing.” I lived in an aged Victorian home with a long central hallway decorated with red Persian rugs, cherry hardwood floors, and walls lined with my private art gallery once featured in Architectural Digest. Later I’d apologize to every oil-painted character who turned up its nose to the putrid odor of rotting fish eggs following me like a fart. “Sir!” “Oh, tag along, boy.” I glanced over my shoulder toward the annoying recruit struggling to stay in tow. “We’ll talk on the way to the trash bin. I have to spare my maid respiratory failure.” “But my supervisor insists―” “And young fellow, never wear three patterns. Coat, tie, and shirt in solids are fine, but never three patterns. Wear at least one solid. Otherwise you look incompetent. Who are you, anyway?” “Deputy Maloy,” I heard, along with his clippie-clop shoes that echoed throughout my lovely gallery. “From the APD, I suppose. Have a first name?” “Joe.” “Too unvarnished. How about Joey? You look like a Joey to me. Why are you here?” “I’m here to take you into custody,” he answered. “I have a warrant.” “Let me see it.” While continuing to sail through my house I reached behind and gripped the paper shoved into my hand, pulled it into view, and studied the text. “I’m to be sequestered?” I tossed the annoying document up over my head, heard it caught from behind. “No, no, I’m too busy pulling a show back together after the fire and can’t be bothered with this right now.” “This is not a negotiation, sir.” “By the way, young man, I was never married to Bette Davis. I only impersonate her. Don’t you know who I am?” “Not exactly, sir.” “Pop idol virgin. Come on, keep up. And pick up your feet as we enter the kitchen. I don’t want my new white marble scuffed by those shoes. Are they even leather?” “Standard APD issue, sir.” “At least they’re a solid color. How old are you, boy?” “Twenty-five.” “Chicken from the coop.” Sweeping through the kitchen then pushing open the back screen door I welcomed the fresh breath of humid July air, though I hated having to pollute my newly renovated backyard with this military grade malodorant. I stopped mid-stride, and little Joey crashed into my back. “Sorry, sir,” he said, blushing and stepping to my side, the breeze not disturbing his quaff. “If you are bent on arresting someone, little fellow, try my neighbor. See along the hedge line, the top of that ladder hidden beyond the foliage?” Too many times I’d spotted the media savvy pervert perched atop that ladder with his zoom lens aimed at my kitchen window. So I had installed bamboo and Japanese ferns around my sandstone patio to cut off the prying eyes of my new nosy neighbor. “Simon “The Throat Slasher” Matheson,” I said to my little buddy. “The freelance author who torpedoes the famous moved in next door to write a tell-all book about my life and career. I oughta toss this nuclear waste into his yard but the stench would wilt my garden as well.” “Sir, we need to talk about this warrant.” “It’s rubbish, too.” I crossed the patio and dumped this former exquisite gift into the trash bin leaning against the house. “Sir, my operation manager is waiting,” the young deputy said. “Listen, I’m scheduled to fly to New York in three days. And I need to inform my wife.” “Wife?” “Don’t be impertinent, young man. A straight man can so do drag. It’s still acting, especially if one does it well, which I do.” “Please, sir, we need to go. Now.” “Me without an overnight bag? I can’t go out in public wearing this red smoking jacket and tucked silk scarf. That would be gauche. And corduroys don’t hold up well without a steam iron.” “Your necessities will be provided, and I have orders.” “Whose orders?” “My lieutenant will explain everything.” This young storm trooper turned out to be quite brawny underneath all those loose fitting stripes. He grabbed my arm and tugged me along the sidewalk. What was I to him, street trash? “Don’t be so rough. I know how to walk.” He hauled me around the house to his unmarked blue sedan in the driveway, where he released me, opened the front passenger door, then walked around the car, leaving me bewildered. Clearly this was no arrest. Protecting me seemed the arrangement, which I could appreciate. Maybe after pleading my case to his superior, assuredly he’d allow me to travel. Never disappoint an audience had always been my primary goal. Soon we were flowing with the congested downtown traffic, negotiating one-way streets, swerving around construction barriers, and running a few traffic signals. “Where are you taking me?” I demanded of my chauffeur who only focused on the traffic. “Do your orders permit conversation? Hello!” The gold Georgia Capital dome loomed in the skyline and it became clear we were not headed toward the nearby Police Department where a number of times I’d bailed out a few of my girls arrested for bad attitudes. Tallulah Gumhead and Jane Fondant were always in need. Mark my words someone would pay for inconveniencing me. I knew the governor. “Sir, please reach into the back seat and put on that hooded jacket.” “I’m to wear a disguise now?” Glancing into the back, I reached for the crumpled black garment, pulled it into my lap, and studied the most degrading thing I’d ever seen. “What is this, terrycloth? I only wear silk.” “Sir, please.” “Intolerable. This whole damn thing!” As I slid my arms into the miserable sleeves, I noticed we turned down Peachtree Street. Up ahead, the Westin Plaza Hotel appeared, the modern 73-story cylindrical spire featured prominently in my son’s bedroom mural. It was also the backdrop for the movie Sharky's Machine starring my old buddy Burt Reynolds. I used to dine at his Underground Atlanta restaurant in the 70s. Ah, the good ol’ days. We rolled along a back alley and parked next to a delivery track backed up to the hotel freight dock. “I can’t even use the lobby entrance?” “Follow me,” the young officer said, grabbing the car keys. “And pull up the hoodie.” “Now that’s the last bobby pen.” “Sir, please, we both have our orders.” “Orders-smorders.” But I cooperated, and with all dispatch he led me through the backdoor, down a cinderblock corridor, past a guard who waved us through, then into the hot, steamy kitchen. At a back service elevator, we rode to the eighth floor where he rushed me down the bare concrete hall and into a room. Finally given a chance to relax, I was stunned at the surroundings stuck in mid-remodel. “No phone, no TV, and no bar!” “I’ll check in across the hall.” He closed the door. “Wait?” I tried the door handle and found it locked from the outside. “Hey.” The next few frustrating minutes seemed like an hour as I surveyed the most depressing hotel suite I’d ever seen. It had a kitchenette, yes, but it lacked appliances, and the living room floor had also been striped down to bare cement. Where was the goddamn furniture? There had better be a king size bed somewhere. Just at the point of my oncoming screaming fit, my jailer returned with his supervisor. “Now this is more like it,” I said, relieved this debacle neared an end. “Let’s get some answers.” The young deputy sidestepped and allowed the boss to enter. This strapping man exuded dominance, about age forty with brunette hair, wide shoulders, and an air of superiority, which seemed as fitting as his ensemble―creased black slacks, starched white dress shirt, and striped red tie. At least this man knew fashion, though he wore a leather shoulder harness with revolver. He stopped just inside the closing door, crossed his arms, and sneered. What the hell did I do to make him hate me? It took a moment to realize the identity of my warden. “Mister Davis,” Maloy said. “This is the operation manager and the man who issues all the orders. Lieutenant Dan Preston.”
But her resistance sends her on an introspective journey she didn’t anticipate. Her grandkids, not seen in fifteen years, are a bunch of eccentric nutcases. Publicity could also expose the past she’s kept between herself and best friend in a nursing home. When she learns the horrific secret her three now-adult children have themselves kept, her youngest son attempting suicide because of it, her invincible persona collapses. Is she really responsible for her devastated family? The Charleston Probate Court might decide for her.
Me incompetent? Preposterous. Me? Abigail Darthea Shaw, age eighty-two, one of the least spiderly ladies about town? Why, I was the mother of three, grandmother of four, widow of a philandering slime-dog who’d been about as useful in our marriage as shriveled pig testicles, and the current inestimable Dame of Charleston, South Carolina. So what if I was violently opinionated? I was still a woman, sometimes sweet, most times sour, always emotional. I had all my marbles. I could even name all forty-five Presidents of the United States and tell you what year it was. Like I said, preposterous. Listen to the letter that got my dander up. Dear Miss Abbey. With regret, I must inform you that a matter has been brought to my attention that involves you. Normally, I would write to your office. But maintaining confidentially was paramount, and I felt you would appreciate not exposing this matter to the public. A docket has been filed with the clerk of the Charleston County Municipal Court Division seeking to have you declared incompetent. Please contact me at your earliest convenience so that we may meet and strategize our defense, possibly make you a ward of the court. The name of the petitioner is Benjamin Hollister Shaw, Jr. With regards, Sidney Allen Ratzenberger, Attorney at Law. My own damn son was suing me? What did I ever do to him? Raise him one can short of a six pack? See to it his elevator didn’t get out of the basement? Scold him for only getting a B+ on his blood test? Yes, yes, I’d admit these were terrible things to think of one’s own son. But dammit, when the hell did he go wrong? I’d been having a relatively decent morning until I discovered this pathetic letter stuffed into my carryon bag. I sat onboard a flight bound for New York. Earlier I’d dashed out my home to meet the late-arriving cab to the airport and grabbed the mail along the way, expecting to find my complimentary annual tickets to the spring Spoleto Festival. There was so much mail I brought it aboard the plane. Now I was trapped at thirty thousand feet and unable to do anything about this. I preferred bad news given directly to my face, no pussyfooting around, and not stuffed into a damn letter. Evidently my attorney didn’t remember this or he was afraid to face me. I’d call and give him a deserved piece of my mind but my cell phone was dead. During my earlier rush to the airport, I hadn’t noticed the battery needed recharging. From my front row window seat I glanced about first-class while pressing the Call button. This was one time a traveling companion in the next seat would be helpful, even the fat ass last week whose flab rolled over the armrest. “Stewardess, stewardess? Little lady!” There was supposed to be prompt service in first class. Who flew me? Plunging Airlines? Finally the same attentive young woman who served me this nasty wine appeared around the forward bulkhead and leaned her perky breasts toward me. I mean really. How dare she point those guns in my direction. I had them too—sixty years ago. “Yes, Miss Shaw, may I help you?” She de-pressed the Call button. “My dear, this wine tastes like pee.” I shoved the glass into her personal space. “I’m sorry, ma’am,” she said, taking the glass away from her face. “May I bring you a Martini?” “You didn’t stomp the grapes, Dearie. Just bring me a bottled water. And how long before we land at LaGuardia?” “Two hours, ma’am.” “Do you have a phone I may use?” “No, ma’am, I’m sorry.” She had better be sorry. And there was another thing, her version of the “look,” the obvious but minuscule revulsion on her face that she tried to conceal while turning away. I couldn’t help being old and set in my ways. But I vowed long ago never to become one of those blue-haired, pasty faced ladies who globbed on eyeliner and lipstick like a drunken art student squeezing acrylic paint onto canvas. Subtle makeup techniques suited me, a brush of cheek powder and a dab of plum lip balm. I looked damn good for a broad my age—sneer and you’d get my high heel dug into your foot. I’d admit to coloring my gray hair with a touch of brick-red. I also deserved courtesy and respect having earned it after all my years. But I’d give this stewardess and her airline credit for trying to satisfy me. I wasn’t a complete “bee-otch,” you know. I considered asking the other passengers about borrowing one of their phones, though it was against regulations, which didn’t mean me, of course. But strangely, everyone appeared to be asleep. “Cowards,” I yelled at them. I could only slump in my seat and reread this damn letter. For most people, hearing from a legal firm was like contact from the IRS. Panic City, right? Absolute terror would engulf you, and you’d want to hide under the covers to avoid dealing with them. Their legalese would have you convicted before the first interview and you’d lose your money, your reputation, maybe your freedom. I’d spent decades dealing with lawyers. I’d rather swallow a live spider or use rusty pliers and rip my manicured nails from their quicks than deal with mine. He also had “rat” in his name. Sidney Allen Ratzenberger was the quintessential attorney rat, still practicing at eighty-one years old and a boil on my wrinkled tuchus. Old Sid had spent years slumped down in his high-back leather chair, toes barely touching the carpet, a legal book poised on his belly. His skewed right shirt collar always pointed outward. He wore square wire-rimmed glasses which he’d peer through as he looked down on everyone. He had black, coldhearted but cerebral eyes half hidden under squiggly white eyebrows. Fine prickly white hair ran around his bald head from liver-spotted pink ear to liver-spotted pink ear—rat ears. He could easily pose for a pencil-drawn, deformed character on the cover of a children’s book filled with sinister nursery rhymes. Despite all this, he was one helluva lawyer. Over the years there had been countless times when he pulled me and my company out of hell’s clutches. Just what was needed when I wanted to sink my teeth into someone’s throat. And there’d be mutant Sid, before and after dabbing the preverbal hankie against his bloodied chops, and me walking out of court victorious. But this letter . . . Sid would face his most challenging case, one that even he might lose. Dear . . . Normally business correspondences addressed people with “Dear Sir” or “Madam,” “Mr. or Mrs. So-and-So,” “Greetings,” “Pursuant to,” or something like “To the Competent Attorney of Record” or, in my case, “Mrs. Freakin’ Former Company President.” But for an attorney, especially mine, to use the term Dear? Just pure comedy, disingenuousness at best. No, no, mustn’t get too personal, must maintain a professional distance. God forbid a lawyer got chummy. The Gates of Hell would crack open and the Devil himself would reach up through the steaming sulfurous gas and snatch their traitorous asses right off the face of the green Earth. Miss Abbey . . . And Sid used my casual given name, too, not my full name, Abigail Darthea Shaw. I had earned a proper salutation. I mean really. I’d been CEO of my company for the past sixty-one years and remained on the board of directors while holding the controlling stock interest. Only people close to me were permitted to use Abbey, my way of separating business from pleasure. I’d worked with Sidney for over fifty years and he had never called me Abbey, not until this damn letter. I’d always been Miss Shaw to him. He also never mailed anything to my home. Everything went to my downtown office—business correspondences, contracts, real estate deeds, and my will. With regret, I must inform you . . . The regret phrase. He didn’t bother to start with cordiality like “I hope all is well with you” or “Are you looking forward to the spring thaw?” Rats hid from all forms of weather. A matter has been brought to my attention that involves you . . . Now the meat of Sidney’s letter, right away too, no sugarcoating required. I was as familiar with Sid’s ways as the dangling skin under my arms. But despite his cutthroat reputation, he was the only non-ambulance chasing lawyer I’d ever known; he waited for desperation to come to him. Long ago in days when a personal matter of mine required special handling and confidentiality, masterful Gizmo aided and succeeded with me. To this day, no one had ever suspected that my daughter . . . I could rest assured Sid’s letter had nothing to do with my past. He knew exactly how to erase anyone’s paw prints in the sand, especially mine. Normally, I would write to your office. But maintaining confidentially was paramount, and I felt you would appreciate not exposing this matter to the public . . . Damn straight. I never cottoned to publicity. I’d turned down countless offers from publishers interested in telling my entrepreneurial story, which began long before women in seats of power became admirable. I preferred to concentrate on my goal of remaining a successful career woman who built a company to heights that most of my peers, and men for that matter, envied. I never apologized for being right nor had I ever compromised. I wanted what I wanted when I wanted it. Visionaries always did, and the direct approach suited me quite nicely, you know. Stab’em in the heart instead of administrating a slow poison. But I never considered myself cruel. Never had I browbeaten my employees, and I had never been the kind of wife who mercilessly berated her husband. I never compared him to another man or to a certain unrequited lover who even today no one had ever known about. Never had I acted sweet or baby-talked to get my way. I had earned what I possess through hard work, the best lesson inherited from my parents, though setting a good example never seemed to work on my kids who didn’t bother to mail me a birthday card or pick up the damn phone. This letter was evidence of that. In 1931 I was the only child born to Rupert and Alma Shaw in Goose Creek, South Carolina, an agricultural community north of Charleston where my parents owned a cluster of Christmas tree farms. Unconventional from the start, I grew up a tomboy. While my prim and proper peers wore Princess Elizabeth inspired skirts, I preferred an A-2 leather flight jacket, blue jeans, and hair cut and coiffed like the new boy styles. I had antisocial teen tinges as well: I snuck out at night to attend low country rhythm and blues clubs instead of school big band sock hops; I intended to join the air force so I could operate the B-17 tail gun and kill me some Japs, though I never got to; and I bantered about sex though I was secretly too timid to try it. My favorite actress was Katherine Hepburn because of her free-spirited ways, and I emulated her as much as possible. Later it was Maggie Smith, after I discovered her. I knew nothing about politics and didn’t pay attention until my ultimate transformation in 1951 just after my twentieth birthday. I inherited the family business after my parents died in a freak traffic accident. On that fateful day, while following a logging truck piled high with holiday cuttings, they drove around the trailer to take the route lead when the load shifted. I was left with little time to mourn or learn the family business that came under immediate attack from my all-male and envious competitors. In those times, women weren’t exactly regarded as executive material. I had to expand my already gruff personality if I was to be taken serious and win every legal challenge, which I began doing after hiring Ratzenberger. Failure was never an option. Having grown up around many tree fellers, the hardworking loggers with an equal brusqueness to mine, their loyal support and tutelage helped lay the foundation for what I was to become―a respected, international leader who ran a Wall Street favored conglomerate that cultivated vast forests for the furniture and construction industries. But I wasn’t completely stoic. I still appreciated a delicate rose or the sultry melodies wafting from a jazz quartet, while banging my fists on a conference room table. And don’t bother to label me a feminist. I busted the glass ceiling long before the effort became popularized by Gloria Full-of-Bull Steinem in the 70s when she began all her yaah-yaahing. Despite the trend for gender superiority, I had worked with many men, and promoted them as well. I also egged on my latest nemesis—Death himself. Admittedly, while nothing frightened me, Death’s stalking did unnerve me. He would pop up at the oddest places, like outside my home at night. He’d stand under the glowing yellow streetlamp and aim his bloodied sickle at my front door. Sometimes I’d spot him in a mirror standing behind me. Other times he’d appear outside my office as a ghostly apparition hovering above the sidewalk, allowing unperceptive pedestrians to walk right through his dusty blackness. He was an annoying reminder of how I had fewer years ahead than behind, what we all faced. But Death knew not to take me before my time. He’d get his boney ass kicked back to wherever in oblivion from which he came. Even Mister Spookface knew not to mess with this old lady. I did, however, still have to contend with the most irritating people in the world—doctors. You see, I still smoked, and every physician told me time and time again to quit, and to cut the sodium from my meals, and to take my medication, and to inform them about every little hiccup or event, and to. . . Damn doctors. I wasn’t a hundred and eighty-two, you know. When I got to be that old, then I’d show concern. For now, this active woman remained an intrepid participant in my company’s business. Sid’s letter rolled on. A docket has been filed with the clerk of the Charleston County Municipal Court Division seeking to have you declared incompetent . . . There was that word again. Incompetent. Did I sound inept to you? Please contact me at your earliest convenience so that we may meet and strategize our defense, possibly make you a ward of the court . . . Damn my attorney for sending this letter and suggesting he make me a ward of Charleston County. Did he believe I’d allow someone else to make decisions on my behalf? I mean really. I ought to fire his tuchus when I got back home. For now, I was trapped in this goddamn airliner. I hated feeling helpless. The name of the petitioner is Benjamin Hollister Shaw, Jr . . . Yeah. I knew him. If my son thought I’d just roll over like a belly offering puppy, then he had no idea whom he was dealing with. I could promise him one thing. This old lady ain’t goin’ down without a fight.