Archive for October, 2010

Time’s Bending Sickle

October 30, 2010

Scroll down for chapter 1. For two previous novels, go to archives.

2. Chronicle of Wasted Time

Dallas was quite a change for me. Instead of the lush green woodlands of the east and my native Appalachians, I found a lot of brown grass and a few scrubby trees. Jean’s folks lived in an older wooded section of town, but out in the raw suburb where our apartment complex had been piled up, the only tree was in a pot in the lobby. The city itself seemed sterile. It was largely made up of office buildings–insurance, finance, corporation headquarters–there was no industry to speak of. Cullen Computing Services was near the northern ring road, a big chunk of glass in the middle of the prairie. At least our apartment was close, so I didn’t have a long commute through the dreary landscape.
My work consisted, at first, in learning enough about computers and the services the company offered so that I could go out and sell them. It was moderately interesting, because it was new. In my training, I moved around the various departments and talked to a lot of people. The culture of the place began to interest me more than what I was supposed to be learning. It became clear that there were two tribes in uneasy coexistence: one could be identified by white shirts, ties, and haircuts; the other by the absence of one or all these insignia. The first tribe looked with indulgent contempt on the second, who in turn ignored the first whenever possible. When members of the first tribe spoke, the discourse eventually got to money; those in the second tribe occasionally mentioned it, but when they did, it was to say how much they needed for their project. It was clear that their relationship was symbiotic, though no one explicitly acknowledged it.
The attitude of both groups toward me, the boss’s son-in-law, was a mixture of deference and resentment, stronger in the tie and haircut tribe. But I listened and asked interested questions, and eventually gained some acceptance. Although I was being prepared for induction into the tie and haircuts, and wore their livery, I felt more affinity with the scruffier clan of engineers, designers, and programmers. When I was in school I got two haircuts a year, one before going home at Christmas, and one before going home for the summer. I hated ties, and wore them only when I had to. I also liked the programmers because more of them had an interest in serious music, and their absorption in their work seemed somehow more selfless and appealing than the others’ focus on money.
One engineer, Perry Fein, was also a violinist and quickly became one of my best friends at Cullen. He was a few years older than I was, a very good player who might have made it to a major orchestra. Although he was a good engineer with a head for applied math and a knack for getting a fresh perspective on a problem, music was his true love. But he quit the music major in college, he said, because he was too busy playing to practice.
“I know it’s paradoxical,” he said once during a break in a quartet session, “but we had to play in two orchestras and the opera workshop, plus do course work, so that I never had time to work on my playing. Also, there was not enough chamber music.” He pushed up the big hornrims that were constantly sliding down his nose.
“I like computers well enough, and the pay is good. It’s like doing crosswords for money. But I’ve known several orchestra players who might as well be plumbers, they are so burnt out on music. I don’t want to end up a bitter old man with tendinitis worrying about the hotshot on the desk behind me and slogging through ‘Bolero’ for the thousandth time. If I play something that much, I want it to be like this Mozart quartet–a piece that tells me something new each time I play it, one that challenges me to play it better next time.”
I didn’t make many friends in my own tribe. My immediate boss was Abner Cross, the man who would later try to shoot me. He was around fifty, and something of a professional Texan–he always wore boots and spoke with a Lyndon Johnson twang–but he was a natural salesman, and was especially successful with eastern clients, who tended to underestimate his shrewdness. He had a rumpled face which he could twist into a variety of sly grins, none of which expressed much warmth. He talked mostly of hunting and football, neither of which had interested me very much since high school.
Once during my apprenticeship I sat in Abner’s office while he lectured me on salesmanship.
“It’s like hunting,” he said. “You want to figure that customer out, see what part of the stream he likes to drink out of, track him down. When you know what he likes, what he wants, it’s like getting that eight-point buck in your crosshairs, and bam! You got him.”
His phone rang. I got up to leave, but he motioned me back to my seat.
“Hey there,” he said, grinning at the phone. “Ya’ll getting the hang of that program? What?” His grin sagged, then flowed into an innocent smile. “You must not be tweaking it right. Did you talk to that feller in engineering, John–John–” He began looking through the papers on his desk, his hand trembling. He paused and frowned. “He don’t know what the fuck he’s talking about. You got to talk to John. Lemme call you back. I’ll check on it. You bet. Won’t be long. Sure. OK. Thanks for calling.” He hung up, then noticed me.
“We’ll chat some more later.” He winked and grinned. “Gotta help pull this ol’ boy’s head out of his ass.” He turned to his papers again. As soon as I was on my way out, his grin faded.
But Abner was not typical. The tone of the department was set by Howell Drew, the vice-president for field operations, whose only reason for living seemed to be competition. Under an exterior as smooth as Abner’s was wrinkled, he dominated any group by sheer undentable self-confidence. In dress and coiffure, he always managed to look like the average of all the models in the past month’s Esquire. He was a big man: he had been a defensive lineman in college, but also a cum laude economics major. After getting an MBA at Harvard, he came to Cullen, where he bowled his way to the top as easily as he would have sacked a high-school quarterback. It was said that the only person in the company who had any power over him was Oren Cullen himself. Howell’s speech was full of military metaphors; we troops must napalm the competition, conquer their territory, take no prisoners, capture the booty. He never used the word “money,” but he was a thesaurus of other terms for loot, lucre, bread, brass, and even cowrie. The unspoken word was a leitmotif running through everything he said.
Money forced itself into my own priorities rapidly. I was soon making more money than I ever had in my life, although my salary was modest. It was also inadequate. Despite some wedding gifts of cash and furniture, we were soon in debt. Once when we went shopping for stuff for the apartment, I drove to the big discount store.
“I don’t think we’ll find anything here,” Jean said.
“Why not? They have almost everything, and it’s cheap.”
“It’ll look cheap, too.”
“Let’s see.”
We looked at stainless tableware. “It’s hideous and flimsy.”
We looked at rugs. “All these are cheap and ugly.” She was right about the rugs. “I know we can’t afford orientals, but let’s at least get a couple of Karastans.”
I found a stereo on sale. “I know this is a good brand,” I said. “Consumer Reports gave it a high rating.”
“But look, the components don’t line up. Besides, that dial is garish.”
All we got from the discount store were some kitchen towels and wastebaskets. At the more expensive stores we got heavy stainless, Karastan rugs, and a handsome stereo that sounded thin in the upper range.
Jean knew she had to get a job. She had a degree, and had worked for an insurance company the previous summer. But she didn’t want to go back there. She read the want ads.
“Here’s something in public relations,” she said, “not too far away.”
“Good. You could check it out tomorrow.”
“Not tomorrow. Gigi has horse show tickets.” And the next day there was an expedition with her mother to a gallery.
We would sit down together to go over our bills and expenses. I’d dump the bill basket on the kitchen table. She would review the figures with me with attention and determination to solve the problem, quick to catch me in an error in calculation, quick to see where the figures were leading. The inescapable conclusion would be that we must spend less until we earned more. Although she was never explicit, she gave me the feeling that I was an inadequate provider. But she would make me bag lunches, she would check the want ads, she would get a job.
“Why not see if your dad has some ideas about where to look?”
Frown. “I don’t want him getting me a job. I don’t need his help.”
“He might know someone, know who’s hiring.”
“I know people. I can find a job.”
But she didn’t. Somehow, perhaps through her mother, her father found out what was going on. He called me into his office.
Oren Cullen was dark and wiry, like his daughter, with a hint of military sharpness in his dress and gestures, and that super-short haircut. Like Ross Perot, he had gotten an edge in the computer business through his military service. He knew something about men as well, but not as much as he did about computers. As he often did, he looked a bit surprised when I entered his office, as if he expected me to salute.
He waved me to a chair. “Tony, you seem to be doing pretty well, from what I hear. You’re about ready to be sent out to sell some of our services. When you start getting some commissions, you’ll be making more money. But I know things are tight for you and Jean right now. I have a feeling that Jean will find a job soon.” He gave a conspiratorial twitch of one eyebrow. “In the meantime, here’s an advance on your first commission.” He handed me a check. “You understand that you will earn this. This is not a handout, but an expression of confidence.”
I glanced at the check and saw that it would cover the most pressing bills. I was grateful, but felt a bit uneasy. However he phrased it, I was further in his debt. Nevertheless, I had little choice but to thank him. I also asked a question.
“Jean says she doesn’t want you to help her get a job. How do you know she will get one?”
“Unless you tell her, she won’t know I had anything to do with it. I love her dearly, as I’m sure you do, but she needs this job in more ways than one. I’m not going to say any more. Some of your surprise should be genuine.”
Although I appreciated what he was doing, I didn’t like keeping a secret from Jean–but again I seemed to have no choice. I was leaving his office when Cullen called me back. “Tony. Apropos of nothing but my curiosity. How did you get Tecumseh for a middle name?”
I had had so much trouble with that name that I only used the initial. Cullen must have been looking at my file. “It’s the name of an Indian chief.”
“I know. But why?”
“My father admired him. He also had another odd admiration for a Tennesseean; that was for William Tecumseh Sherman.”
“Really? For his military genius or his devotion to the union?”
“I’m not sure. I remember my father quoting ‘War is hell’.”
He seemed gratified. “Well, thank you, Tony.”
Jean was clearly pleased about something when I came home that night. “I told you I knew people. I’ve got a job interview tomorrow.”
“That’s great! Who with?”
“You remember Barry Parsons? He’s working for Senator Kimmel–well, he has a polling service, and the senator is his biggest account. They need a data analyst, and also someone who can be a public spokesperson. Barry says I’d be ideal.”
“So I interview with Barry and his partner–and the senator.”
“Wow. Very good. Did he mention a salary?”
The figure he proposed sounded generous; I figured that Jean’s job, with my advance, should get us out of debt in a reasonable time. Since I didn’t want to seem to top Jean’s good news, I decided to postpone telling her about my advance for a while.
Jean met me for lunch after her interview. I could see her glow across the parking lot of the restaurant. She got the job, of course. She talked excitedly all during lunch about the senator’s campaign and her role in it. I didn’t remind Jean that I had spoken slightingly about the senator as a creature of the oil bidness. That night she dragged out her old statistics texts and sat muttering about chi-square. The job began in earnest the next week. Her mother bought her two Peck and Peck suits for the occasion.
Jean threw herself into the work with all her energy and intelligence, and soon made a significant contribution by revising one of the questions in the poll that was generating conflicting data. When she brought home her first paycheck, Jean waved it at me, saying “Let’s see what this does to the national debt. Where’s the bill basket?”
“Here we go.” I handed her the basket full of windowed envelopes. “I’ve got some good news too. I hadn’t said anything before–I didn’t want to compete with your triumph. But I got an advance on my future commissions.”
Jean seemed pleased, but then a flicker of suspicion crossed her face. “Commission advance? That’s new.”
“Really? It’s not routine?”
“I don’t know. Let’s see.” She pulled out the bank statement, finding the deposit and the date immediately. “Did my dad give you this?”
“Did he say anything about my job?”
I was caught. “Well, he said he thought you would find something, but I think he was just being optimistic–you know, encouraging.” I thought I might lie better if it were close to the truth.
Jean sat silent, looking at the check and the bank statement. Then she looked up at me. Her expression wavered unreadably. Something changed.
Jean quit her job before the month was out. She found a reason–or rather several. She professed to have an insight about how reactionary and unimaginative the senator was, so that she wanted no part in his reelection; they didn’t want a data analyst, just a receptionist; they had threatened to put her on the phone bank. Jean, always impatient with any hesitation or wavering on my part, expected full support. I tried to give it, but I’m not sure I knew how to give what she needed.
Shortly after quitting, she shocked me by getting a radically short haircut, less than a half inch all over. She had always seemed to take pleasure in her long, full hair, and I had always found it attractive, and told her so many times. I didn’t say anything–it’s her hair–but my shock must have shown on my face, for she was angrily defensive, somehow managing to bring my low paycheck into the discussion.
Fortunately, I soon began to travel, and, to my surprise, to bring in some commissions. The company had some attractive new services at the time, and competition was still rather limited, so my success depended more on these circumstances than on my talent as a salesman. Nevertheless, I covered my advance after four sales, and sooner than I expected began to make some money. But after a few months, the easy sales dried up. The pressure to land clients became intense, as did the competition. I often felt squeezed in a three-way vice: pushed by the company, resisted by the client, and threatened by the competition.
And homecomings were disappointing. Jean had maintained a certain distance from me ever since she discovered her father’s–our–conspiracy. Her habit of blowing hot and cold had continued after our marriage, but it now took on a different, deeper quality. It varied, and sometimes would be hardly noticeable, especially if I worked hard to please her. But on at least one occasion, I found her depressed and weepy, much worse than any pre-menstrual blues, and unable to talk about what was bothering her. We rarely fought, but we never quite reached over that distance. Jean eventually found a job on her own, but didn’t stay with it long. She went through three jobs in the next five years.
Jean had some friends from her youth, and she would occasionally go out with Gigi or Ashley, but the only really close friend she had moved to California shortly after we came to Dallas. I met her a few times, and regret that she left, for she always put Jean in a good mood. Callie Warren was not the country club or junior league type, but a big woman with a big heart, a true Texas good ol’ gal with a wide smile and loud laugh. She had no pretense at all; she was very smart, but spoke up immediately if she didn’t know or understand something. “Whoa!” she would say. “I don’t get that thang you said about Gaussian distributions.” She found something interesting, likeable, or valuable about almost everyone. For this reason, it may have been a more important friendship for Jean than for Callie. After her move, they talked on the phone a few times a year, but Callie didn’t write–“I get too busy talking to write”–and I heard less and less about her. Jean had few other influences that could stimulate her intelligence and energy in really positive ways other than my young, inadequate self.
I had music, which helped me handle it all. I had found some players among the grubby sweater tribe at work, and managed to schedule an evening of string quartets almost every week I was in Dallas. Perry Fein was my main contact in the chamber music underground. He knew two other players at Cullen and a dozen others out in the community, and could almost always get a group together on a day’s notice. We played most with a programmer named John Yazchuk, a violinist; our regular violist was a doctor, Myron Fish, but we occasionally played with another violist, a burly lawyer named Herman Murray, whom we teased because of both his vocation and avocation. A viola-playing lawyer got to hear a lot of abusive jokes.
Perry also got me into the amateur chamber music players’ organization, and they sent me a directory listing players in most states and in several foreign countries. So when I travelled, I called ahead and lined up an evening of chamber music whenever I could. Sometimes I had trouble borrowing a cello, and I couldn’t afford to take mine on the plane. Then I’d find some singers and read madrigals and part songs. I didn’t have much of a voice, but I could sight-read and hit most of the notes in the bass parts. Madrigals led me to other early music and to the beginnings of my interest in string fantasias like the In Nomine. I also started doing a lot of reading in the literature and history of the Renaissance. Only in the last months before my visit to the British Museum had I been too busy to play or sing, or even read much.
So five years slipped by. We had ups and downs, but until just before the London trip, my life had some rhythm, a pattern that seemed to give it balance and impetus. Nixon resigned, we left Vietnam, I worked. Into the gray background of work and travel, I managed to weave some brighter threads of music–and friends, especially those friends with whom I shared that disinterested love of music. Given the number of egos and prima donnas in the music world, I’ve always been surprised at how few I have encountered among amateur enthusiasts. My new London acquaintance, Derek, for instance, was a natural first violinist: he had the technique and the temperament, and the ability to lead; yet he never dictated, never overpowered the ensemble to show off his facility. Ian told me that Derek would often volunteer to play the second violin part if that seemed to be the best way to get a group playing, to get to the music. And I know that Derek and his friends would gladly welcome me back if I should call again, and that they might be more inclined to trust me, on shorter acquaintance, than they would their banker, because they would have perceived in me a love for what they love.

These thoughts were vaguely in the back of my mind when I called Arthur Reed-Noble the next evening after our quintet session. After several rings, a burst of recorder music came on the phone, and a plummy BBC voice saying, “Hallo, Reed-Noble here.”
“Hello, my name is Tony Maclean. Ian Ramsey and Derek Miller suggested I call you.”
“Oh, good.” The voice relaxed a bit toward friendliness. “Let me turn down this noise.” The music faded in the background. “How do you know those chaps?”
“We played some quintets last night. I’m a cellist.”
Suspiciously: “I hope you don’t want me to play bloody Brahms or something.”
“No, I actually wanted to ask you about an earlier composer. Ian says you’re an expert on Renaissance composers, and I’ve become interested in their music. Could you tell me anything about Tobias Hume?”
He laughed. “A bit. Very queer duck. Wrote a lot for the lyra viol. Couple of amusing songs. One very fine lyric, and some of the viol pieces are interesting. What else might you want to know?”
“Well, I know he was a soldier. Any good published information about his life?”
“Yes. About all we know is in Peter Warlock’s little book on the English air, written in the twenties. Mad as a hatter. Hume, that is–Warlock was half around the twist himself, but that’s another matter. Hume spent his last years in the Charterhouse, a kind of old soldier’s home–still is, in fact. Near the end of his life he sent a petition to Parliament, which got printed. Full of crazy things–claimed to have invented some powerful new weapons, wanted to go use them on the Irish.”
“Fascinating. Do you think any of his viol pieces would work on the cello?”
“No.” A note of distaste, then of conciliation. “I suppose it would be possible to play some on the cello, but it wouldn’t sound the same. Have you ever heard any of the pieces played on the viol?”
“Are you doing research–a dissertation, maybe?”
“No, just amateur curiosity. I’m a salesman for a computer service.”
“Indeed. Tell you what. I’m having a sort of musical open house tomorrow night. Why don’t you pop round and I’ll play a few bits on the viol for you. Also, some interesting people might show up.”
“That would be very nice of you. What time?”
“About eight. Here’s the address.” It was in Islington.
“I’ll be there.”
I worked hard on the bank job all evening and all next morning. At lunchtime I took a break and a walk and found myself looking at the columns of the British Museum. I felt a mix of dread and curiosity. I entered the library, looked up the Warlock book and filled out a request for it to be sent to the North Library. The Hume books were still waiting for me behind the counter. The room was much the same: a few readers were scattered at the tables, leaning over books under the low lights. The ceiling dripped with shadows.
I opened Poeticall Musicke to the “Hunting Song.” The print lay docilely on the page. I read the song. It was all very jolly. “Come come my hearts a hunting let us wende,” it began. The hounds were called–“Ringwood and Roler . . . Trounser and Drummer, Bowman and Gunner.” One hound named “Joler” seems to have saved the hunt. I flipped back to the beginning of the book where I read a dedication to Queen Anne of Denmark, James’s consort. At the bottom of the facing page was an inscription in a neat italic hand: “I doe in all humylitie beseech your Majestie that you woulde bee pleased to heare this Musick by mee; having excellent Instruments to performe itt.” Again I felt very strange, and the letters on the page began to squirm.

The tall man with the red beard and sloping eyebrows stood outside an imposing building. His viol was strapped to his back. He also clutched a flat package wrapped in white cloth. He glanced up and down the street, and at the entrance to the building. Finally he knocked on the door. A man in a blue jacket opened it.
“Captain Hume to see his lordship.”
The man in blue waved him into a paneled room with a fireplace. Captain Hume put down his viol and began pacing around the room. In a few moments a middle-aged man entered; he was dressed in an embroidered cloak of deep red, black stockings, and high-heeled shoes with bright silver buckles. The gentleman spoke with a Scots accent, and Hume’s accent sounded similar, but not quite the same.
“My lord–cousin,” Hume said with a bow. “I’m ever in your debt.”
The gentleman gestured toward Hume’s parcel. “Is that the book for her majesty?”
“Aye.” He handed over the package. “You’ll see her now? Shall I wait here, in the event it would please her to hear me play?”
“Gude captain, I canna tell. Wait here half an hour. If I am no back then, get you home. You lodge in Fetter Lane? I’ll send word to you there.”
“Thank you, my lord. I may first go to the Mermaid in Cheapside.”
“Very well.”
The gentleman made as if to leave, but Hume tentatively touched his arm and stopped him. He spoke with great earnestness. “My lord, honored kinsman, forgive me, but please understand that you have my fortunes in your hand. If this miscarries, I know not where to turn.”
The gentleman was impatient, but not unkind. “Cousin Toby, I’ll do what I can, but I canna do mair. My father and your”–here he hesitated slightly–“cousin were friends as well as kin.”
“My lord, your grateful servant.” Hume bowed and stepped back. The gentleman left the room. Hume stared at the door for a time, then began pacing back and forth.

I started at the presence of the librarian handing me Warlock’s little book. I sat staring at it, then hastily shut the book by Hume. Warlock’s book on the lute-song or air lay before me. When my eyes could focus properly, I opened it to the chapter on Hume. I moved gingerly, as though it might explode in my hand. Warlock’s few pages were mainly descriptions of Hume’s two books, with quotations from their lengthy titles and dedications, and comments on some of the songs and viol pieces. He then described a petition Hume submitted to King Charles around 1630 asking permission to take 120 men to “Mickle Bury Land” (Mecklenburg?) as requested by the king of Sweden. The final item was a full reprint of Hume’s petition to the Parliament in 1642.
He was indeed a poor, pitiful madman when he wrote this document, which testified to his poverty, the rejection he had encountered, and the fantastic plans he had for subduing the rebels in Ireland with mysterious instruments of war. He praised a few people who helped him, such as the Earl of Pembroke, and blamed the Earl of Essex, whose servants drove him away. He called on Pembroke and the king of Sweden as witnesses to his military service. He boasted of putting “thirty thousand to flight” in Russia and of killing “six or seven thousand Polonians by the art of my instruments of war when I first invented them.” He claimed to have maintained a thousand soldiers in London for seven weeks, the expense of which made him pawn all his best clothes. Yet he promised to bring the king “twenty millions of gold and silver in ready coin in the space of twelve or fourteen weeks.” I felt a peculiar sensation, like the change in air pressure before a thunderstorm, when I read this sentence: “For I protest I cannot endure this misery any longer, for it is worse to me than when I did eat horse flesh, and bread made of the bark of trees, mingled with hay dust, and this was in Parno in List-land, when we were beleagured by the Polonians.” I sat fingering Hume’s books for some time, not daring to open them. I felt sympathy for Hume’s madness, and deep, demanding curiosity. What happened between his dedication of a book to Queen Anne in 1607 and this mad petition of 1642? I opened the 1607 volume and looked again at Hume’s handwritten plea to the Queen. I felt something–tremors, aftershocks–but nothing happened.
I picked up Hume’s first volume, The First Part of Ayres, French, Pollish, and Others, published in 1605. The running heads read “Captain Humes Musicall Humors”; some references use this title, I remembered. Grinding my teeth at my own irrationality and superstition, I decided to try a kind of sortes virgiliana. I flipped the pages and randomly placed a finger on a spot. I had landed on a piece called “Captaine Humes Pavin.” Nothing happened.
I relaxed a bit and did some ordinary rational examination of the book. It was dedicated to William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke; I remembered that he was one of the dedicatees of Shakespeare’s First Folio, one of the candidates for “Mr. W. H.” of the Sonnets, and a minor poet himself. Later I discovered that he was the brother of the earl who gave Hume some help in his last years. Most of the pieces were for solo viol, and most were written in tablature, a kind of musical fingering chart, though a group in the middle of the book were in regular notation. Several reflected Hume’s experiences in foreign lands: some were identified as “Pollish,” one was “Duke John of Polland his Galliard,” and another was “Beccus an Hungarian Lord his delight.” There were a handful of songs, including one in praise of the soldier’s life, with sound effects; an amusing comparison of tobacco and love; and one of those lyric gems that seem to pop up like wildflowers in the most unlikely places in this period:

Fain would I change that note
to which fond love hath charmd me,
long, long to sing by roate,
fancying that that harmde me,
yet when this thought doth come
Love is the perfect summe
of all delight.
I have no other choice
either for pen or voyce,
to sing or write:

O Love they wrong thee much,
That say thy sweet is bitter.
When thy ripe fruit is such,
As nothing can be sweeter,
Faire house of joy and bliss,
Where truest pleasure is,
I doe adore thee:
I know thee what thou art,
I serve thee with my hart,
And fall before thee.

I hummed the tune Hume matched to this verse; it was beautifully simple, with a surprising range and sense of space.

Hume was seated at a table in a small, dim room lit by a single smoking, flickering candle. The smell of smoke, sweat, and an unemptied chamber pot was heavy. Hume was dressed in a plain but clean linen shirt and dark knee breeches. He was writing notes on a wax tablet. He hummed a bit, stopped, then rubbed on the wax with his finger. A knock startled him, and he jumped to his feet. He opened the door and admitted a woman in a veil. He shut the door hastily behind her and stared at her intently as she began to remove the veil. Neither had spoken.

When my vision cleared and I could see the printed page, I read through the song again. I thought of Jean and felt a pang of longing. Now I checked my watch–it was six hours earlier in Dallas, just about when she would be waking up. I turned in my books and returned to my hotel.
The call went through quickly, and I was surprised to hear Jean answer not only fully awake, but with an urgency in her voice. “Tony, are you all right?”
“I’m fine. I was just missing you, wanting to hear your voice.”
“I’m glad you called. How soon can you get back? Dad’s in the hospital.”
“Oh God. What is it?”
“A stroke. We don’t know how bad it is yet.”
“I’m sorry. Are you OK?”
“Yes. Can you get an earlier flight?”
“I don’t know. I’ll try. I was supposed to see the client in the morning and leave tomorrow night.” Even in this strait I had a twinge of disappointment that I might miss the evening at Arthur Reed-Noble’s. I stayed on the phone long enough to comfort Jean, who in the end seemed more harried than fearful for her father. Then I called the airline, but all flights before mine were booked. Although I did try very hard, and left my number to be called in case of a cancellation, I was secretly pleased to be able to keep my plans. Even working on the bank job seemed less onerous that afternoon. I left Reed-Noble’s number with the desk clerk along with instructions to relay any calls from the airline, and set out for another quick Indian dinner and a tube ride to Islington.
On the way I tried to put aside my fast-growing concerns about my sanity or brain tumor or whatever else was causing my visions of Tobias Hume, and examined my feelings about Oren Cullen, or rather the lack of them. Cullen had meant well toward me, and could have made things much harder for me and Jean. Perhaps I was relieved at the prospect of the disappearance of someone who had loaded me with the burden of gratitude. To defend myself against such unworthy motives, I told myself that he had manipulated me, had put me in a difficult position in my relationship with Jean. But if he should die, our future would become much more uncertain. It then occurred to me that Jean’s own feelings for her father were not clear to me. I looked out the window of the train and watched the dark shapes grab and flinch at the speeding car.


Time’s Bending Sickle

October 24, 2010

Foreword:  This site contains two complete novels posted in serial form.  The first is “Four-Part Dissonance,”  begun in October 2009.  Its sequel, “Death and the Maiden,” followed.  To read these posts, begin with the earliest dated archive and scroll down to find chapter one.  Then scroll up for subsequent chapters.  The current novel, “Time’s Bending Sickle,”  begins below.


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1. Time’s Fool



The first shot was amazingly loud.  I was hiding under my office desk, a metal filing cabinet wedged between the desk and the door.  A splintered groove appeared in the floor a foot from my right hand.  I shrank further into the kneehole of the desk.  A second shot coincided with a warm sensation under my right shoulder blade.  I felt the metal wall of the desk behind me.  There was a bulge, still warm.   The bullet must have gone through the file cabinet and nearly made it through the desk.  Jesus.

“You shit!”  Abner Cross, the man who thought I was responsible for getting him fired three months ago, yelled through the door.  I hadn’t seen him, but I could picture him in his camouflage and orange hat, and I knew he had a new semi-automatic deer rifle.  Three more shots.  A long dent creased the outer wall of the desk by the kneehole, and I could see broken glass on the floor.  The acrid smell of gunpowder began to drift into the room.  I felt a warm wetness.  Oh, God, had I been hit?  My fingers came back wet but not red.  My bladder had emptied.

My friend Perry, who had been talking to me on the phone, had seen Abner enter the building in his hunting outfit and had given me enough warning to throw up the barricade.  He said he was calling the cops.  Where the hell were they?

“Tony!  You fucking pissant!”  Abner’s voice was high and frantic.  Bam, bam.  Clicking outside, ragged breathing.  He must be reloading.  Sirens, thank God.  More shots, more dents and splinters.

“Abner!” I shouted.  “I got fired too.  Stop shooting.  The cops are here.  Give up before they shoot you.”  I heard clicking and steps.  He fired again, my right calf stung, and my fingers came back red.  Abner must have figured out my position from my voice and was shooting from an angle.  Something kicked hard at my right thigh at the sound of another shot.  The smell of gunpowder grew stronger.  I couldn’t stay where I was.  I was about to head for the window when I heard a bullhorn in the hall.

“Drop your gun and lie down.”  Silence.  “Mr. Cross.  Drop your gun and lie down, and you won’t be hurt.  Now!”  Sobs, a metallic clunk, and soft bumps, followed by a rush of heavy steps.  “Mr. Cross, you are under arrest.  You have the right to remain silent. . . .”  There was the sound of the door being pushed.

“Mr. Maclean, are you all right?  Police here.”

“I’ve been hit, but I think I’m all right.”  What kind of logic is that?  But that’s what I said.

“Can you move any of the barricade, sir?”

“I don’t know.  I’ll try.”  I crawled out and, still on my knees, gave the desk a shove.  It moved a little.  I tried again, and then noticed that my thigh was bleeding a lot.  I don’t remember any more.


While I was in the hospital, I had a lot to think about.  Mainly, I thought about how close my sorry ass came to getting killed.  I thought a lot about what had led up to my wetting my pants hiding under a desk, and about what I would do next.  I had had a terrible day even before I got fired and shot, and I knew I would have more trouble waiting for me when I got out of the hospital.  But I also thought about a lot of other wierd stuff that I had experienced–I mean really wierd–and that it wouldn’t be right if I checked out without trying to describe it or account for it somehow.  Otherwise, everybody would say, there went another boring, sane, ordinary citizen.  What kind of life was that?  Well, I’ve had another life–almost.  When things settle down, I’d write something.  Things aren’t that settled, but here I sit at the word processor, giving it a shot.  I winced at that word, reading that last sentence, but let it go.


How to start?  Time is important, for tempus fugit. Time and tide wait for no man; but time hangs heavy. O tempora, O mores! My time is your time.  There will be time, time enough to drop a question on your plate.  Time tryeth truth.  Time heals all wounds, wounds all heels.  Double time, triple time, cut time, three-quarter time.  Tempus perfectus, tempus imperfectus.

Back in 1979 I was a neatly-dressed young salesman from an American computer services company in London on business.  The plane had landed late, and I awoke much too early.  I turned on the bath and steamed some of the wrinkles out of my clothes while I soaked.  My internal clock was off; I had not slept much on the plane; maybe I even had some kind of virus.  I heaved out of the bath, dried off, and began shaving.  The face in the mirror looked familiar: the hereditary circles under my eyes were a bit darker, and the black stubble on my chin seemed heavier.  I guess I looked older than my twenty-seven years.  Some of the fog in my head lifted as I dressed, but my loginess was not helped by the heavy breakfast of sausage, fried tomatoes, limp toast, and bad coffee.  I did not look forward to my presentation.  My job was to try to sell an old British bank on our new computer service.  I had not made a sale in some time, and was under considerable pressure to bring in some business.

The bank I was trying to sell had an IBM 360, a big mainframe, but to me at that time that was like quill pens and eyeshades.  Our company was an integrator: we got the best hardware for the job at the best deals, then did the software and ran the service for lower cost.  We did what IBM did, only without the priestly mystery and the high fees; moreover, we were not locked into one company’s hardware or software.

The bank’s central offices were in a grubby Victorian building on Threadneedle Street.  A crew was tearing up the street with a jackhammer, so I covered my ears and ran from the corner to the entrance.  The interior was much more attractive than the exterior: polished stone floors, dark woodwork, walls thick enough to muffle the work in the street.

The manager I spoke with looked a bit like a butler from central casting, but he was very sharp.  It soon became clear that our main competitor had been to see him, for he was loaded with lots of pointed questions about our service.  Their strategy was to suggest all kinds of things that could go wrong with our work that would be unlikely in their own.  There was some truth in each point, but the failures were, so far, more possibilities than actualities.  I had to defend our service, and point out the weaknesses in my enemy’s.  The first hour and a half of our meeting was spent ducking bullets and firing back.  Eventually I established enough of a beachhead for the manager to agree to consider a bid.  We started to work out specifications on which to base the bid.  He told me what they needed, and I told him what we would need to know about their operation.  We would meet again in two days, I would fly home with the information, and we would wire him our bid.

It was much harder than I had anticipated.  It was both exhausting and very boring.  Again I ran the gantlet of the jackhammer crew, and returned to Bloomsbury.  I found an Indian restaurant, had a good tandoori chicken, sag paneer, and a cold Heineken.  After a nap, I felt somewhat refreshed, but still in need of some therapy for battle fatigue.  London is a fine city, but that day I wanted to be in some other place.  I was jet-lagged, had a headache, and was feeling especially vulnerable as a failed musician, uneasy husband, and shy salesman.  Although I hadn’t made it as a professional cellist, I enjoyed playing chamber music with other amateurs, and had recently developed an interest in early music.  It had been weeks since I had had time for a session of string quartets, and I was feeling as deprived as a junkie in jail.  I fished out my international directory of fellow chamber music addicts, and called a London violinist.  I identified myself, mentioned the directory, and asked if it would be possible to find a group and a cello.  Cecelia Vaux was crisp, polite, but reserved.

“Actually, my regular quartet is meeting tonight.  I suppose you could come along and we could play the Schubert quintet.  We’re playing at our cellist’s flat, and he has another cello.”

“I’d enjoy that very much.”  I got directions to a flat in Hampstead.  After a cup of tea and a sandwich, I worked half-heartedly on the bank job for a while, then walked up to Tottenham Court Road and took the Northern Line underground to Hampstead.

Ian, the cellist, was a thin, cheerfully intense man in his thirties, with curly brown hair trimmed around the neck and ears but in a wild pile on top.  He welcomed me into a fairly large apartment furnished with a mixture of clunky English and clean Danish, with books and music covering most surfaces.  Cecelia and the other violinist, Derek, were also thirtyish but more distant at first.  The violist was a small woman in jeans and sweater whose face was obscured by brown bangs and large glasses.  She was another American, Ian was quick to tell me, over here on a Fulbright.  Her name was Marina something–an Armenian-sounding last name I didn’t catch.  Although her lips moved when we were introduced, I didn’t hear her say anything for some time.

The cello Ian loaned me was a sweet-sounding instrument, but the bridge was higher than I was used to, and it took me a while to adjust.  Ian insisted that I play the first part.  The other players were very good, but the violist was often outshouted by the rest of us.  She did make the long lines of the slow movement heard, and sustained them admirably.  We got better as we went along.

My nerves unkinked with the serene, gentle pull of the Schubert, and even the agitated parts were soothing because they fit and balanced and made the calm passages even sweeter.   Music was soul-balm for me, especially playing it, putting my own muscles, nerves, thoughts, and feelings in the service of the piece.  Passion, calm, wildness, anger, joy, all fit, and all were controlled and impelled by the music as my hands controlled the cello.

After the Schubert we dashed through one of the Boccherini quintets, fortunately not one with too much virtuosity in the first cello.  Then while Ian prepared a snack, we did the first movement of one of the quartets Mozart wrote for the cello-playing king of Prussia.  Ian was enthusiastic about my playing, and even Cecelia said, “Very nice.”

Over cool beer and cheese and chutney sandwiches, they politely asked me the usual questions about my job, music, home.  In return, I asked if they knew anyone interested in Elizabethan music.  Ian, Derek, and Cecelia answered almost simultaneously, “Arthur!”

Ian continued eagerly.  “Arthur Reed-Noble.  He knows all those chaps.  Plays lute, viol, recorders, sackbut–”

“Don’t forget the racket,” Derek added, showing that he thought the name of the instrument appropriate.

“He will occasionally condescend to play piano with us, complaining all the while about this decadent modern music–meaning anything written after 1700.”

“I’d like to talk to him if you think he wouldn’t mind.”

“The problem would be getting him to shut up,” Cecelia said with a sharp smile.

So I got Arthur’s phone number and an invitation to play with them if I came back to London.  As the party began to break up, Ian asked me if I would mind walking Marina to the bus stop.  I agreed, addressing my answer to Marina.  She mouthed her thanks, picked up her viola, and showed she was ready to leave. We said our goodbyes, stepped into the street, and walked silently for a while.  Then I asked her what she was doing on her Fulbright.

“Studying number theory in change ringing.”

“Oh.”  I had the vague feeling that I should know something about what she said.  Yes.  “Oh, bells.  Like Dorothy Sayers–”

The Nine Tailors.”

“Unusual topic.”

“Yes.  It’s not easy for a mathematician to get a grant for England.”  She hesitated.  “What does your wife do?”

I glanced down.  She was looking straight ahead.  “She does some volunteer work.”

“Do you have children?”


“Why did you go into business instead of music?”

I hesitated again.  “That’s a long story.  Basically, I wasn’t good enough to play professionally.”

We were passing a bus stop, where a red double-decker had just pulled up.  “Thanks for the company.  This is my bus.  You play pretty well.”  She gave me a quick smile.

I said good night and crossed the street to the tube station.  I had enough on my mind, but she had managed to hit three sore spots in as many sentences: my job and music, my wife, and children.


The next day I felt better, though still a little blurred around the edges.  I had no work that I couldn’t postpone for a while, so I indulged in another hobby–or rather an escape.  I went to the British Museum.  I had seen a few of the pieces a seventeenth-century English composer named Tobias Hume had written for viola da gamba, and was curious to see the British Museum copies of his rare publications.  I hoped to transcribe some of the pieces for cello–just for my own amusement, and for that of the professor at North Texas State who had written a letter that got me a reader’s pass.  For a few hours I could forget about the presentation I had made, the cold reserve and skepticism it met, and the rejection that might–that probably would result.

When I entered the main reading room, I stopped and looked around that beautiful round space for several minutes, only gradually moving from the architecture to the inhabitants.  As one would expect, there were middle-aged gray men in tweeds, scruffy, harried-looking younger men and women who must have been graduate students, a long-bearded man in a skullcap turning pages left to right, and an old man in a frayed olive-drab overcoat staring at the peak of the dome and muttering toothlessly to himself.  I was then startled to see a figure who seemed to jump from my grandmother’s photo album–a little girl in a white sailor dress with a white cap over vivid orange corkscrew curls was bent over a thick volume, rapidly writing in a notebook.  I moved toward her, and saw that although she was small, she was old; despite her hair and costume, she must have been in her seventies.

I followed directions to the North Library, where readers examined the older and rarer books.  I turned in the slips for my books and took a seat at one of the long tables.  The balcony running around the room was dark, made darker by the pools of light from the lamps dividing each of the study tables.  A man at the next table had built a wall of books around himself on three sides.  He hunched forward, occasionally low enough for the light to glance off his bald head.

I yawned and stretched and stared into space, drifting away, until an ascetic-looking Indian librarian brought my books, thin folios bound in leather and marbled boards.  I picked up Captaine Humes Poetical Musick (1607), and happened to open it to a “Hunting Song,” which had an amusing text with a catalog of the names of the hounds, and the music imitated various hunting calls and noises.  A note printed at the end of the song said that it was “sung before two Kings, to the admiring of all brave Huntsmen.”

One king was probably James.  I looked up into the shadows above the row of lamps.  The shadows began to blur and brighten, then move.  I felt very strange.


A crowd of people were milling about noisily in park-like forest land.  Most were not very tall and not very clean, and were dressed in Renaissance costume–some in long gowns and kerchiefs, some in doublet and hose, some in leather breeches and short jackets, most of the men in flat caps.  There was movement in the distance: the crowd simultaneously pressed toward and gave way to a group of authoritative-looking men who were pushing ahead of several gentlemen on horseback.  These were more elaborately and colorfully dressed, some with ruffs, short cloaks, and high-crowned hats; some carried spears, bows and arrows, crossbows, and coiled hunting horns.  As they moved closer, the crowd cheered.  Some of the men on foot held barking dogs on leashes.  In the middle of the group on horseback, flanked by the most elegantly dressed young men, were a man of about forty, with drooping eyelids and slack jaw, and a stout, plump-cheeked man about ten years younger.  The older man seemed to be watching the fat on his companion jiggling with the movement of his horse.  He glanced away with a slight twitch of his upper lip, and gazed at the buttock of the young horseman ahead of him. This flesh was also moving slightly under the tight stocking, but the older man’s eyes did not wander.  He scratched at his crotch.  An especially noisy shout seemed to recall his attention to the dust, the heat, and the presence of the mob.

Right on the edge of the crowd a tall man in a worn leather jacket was sawing away on a six-stringed viola da gamba, his mouth moving as though he were singing rather than shouting, but he could not be heard over the crowd.  The viol-player was standing, with his instrument resting on a stool, instead of sitting with the viol between his knees in the normal fashion.

The troop passed on.  A horn sounded, the hounds’ barking changed pitch as they were released, and the horsemen galloped away, raising more dust.  The crowd began to disperse.  The tall viol player looked after the hunters with a disappointed air, replacing his cap on his sandy hair.  The way his eyebrows sloped down toward the corners of his blue eyes gave him a look of worried puzzlement, innocent concern.  He appeared to be in his mid-thirties, and wore a full reddish beard.  He tucked the bow under the strings of the viol, adjusted a strap around its neck and waist, and slung it over his shoulder.  Sighing heavily, he picked up his stool and moved off.  A man in a spotted leather coat who had been standing by him in the crowd, one of several staring at him now that the hunters had passed, called out, inviting him to join him in a cup of ale.  The viol player started distractedly, then thanked his new acquaintance and walked off with him, replying briefly to his questions and smiling wanly at the other’s jibes.


The scent of sweat and garlic hung in the air, probably from the black-haired scholar with Mediterranean features who had taken the place across the table from me.  I handed in the book at the desk and wandered out into the museum, coming to rest in front of the Elgin Marbles, the sculptures taken from the Parthenon.  The cool rationality of their form was at first ressuring.  But then I became aware that the figures showed men struggling with imaginary monsters, the centaurs, and my uneasiness drove me out of the building and into the pub across the street.  The one stiff scotch I had there hit my jet-lagged brain like half a bottle.  I made it to my Bloomsbury hotel and collapsed on the bed, just managing to kick off my shoes.


I awoke from a nightmare about centuars and remembered the questions Marina the viola-playing mathematician asked me.

I have mixed feelings about the days that made these subjects sore, but they are part of the picture.  I was a music major in college, but was also pretty good at math.  Jean came into my awareness during my senior year.  I had been sailing along, surfing on music, with no clue as to what would happen when I graduated; it was like voyaging on a flat-earther’s world–after June I’d drop over the edge.  I had dated other girls, but I had never met anyone like Jean; she was glamorous, worldly, and quick.  We met in a math class.  I overheard her speaking to another girl about how “a robot would be better than that prof.”  I spoke up, relating an account I had read of a computer that could teach, and mentioning another prof who was more personable.  This was still during the time that computers were big, expensive monsters used mainly by scientists and big business.  She turned a sharp, appraising eye on me and took up a conversation that turned into a long coffee break, and then a lunch.

She was smart and knowledgeable, but was interested more in the power computers made available than how they worked.  She liked what she could grasp quickly and easily–which was quite a bit–but she lost patience when faced by a complex process.  But I was interested in other things about her.  She had long, full, dark hair, bright green eyes, and a great figure–curvy and wiry at once.  I was then only subliminally aware that she was expensively turned out.  She told me later of the designers who were responsible for her slacks and sweater; I learned that the fit and cut of these garments could be obtained only at some expense.  She was from Dallas; her family lived in University Park, and owned a computer business.

I was totally smitten.  Not only was I attracted by her looks and intelligence, but she had a way of keeping me on edge, of approaching and withdrawing, warming and cooling, that somehow took me over.  At first, she continued to date fraternity boys, which drove me wild.  But then, after seeing her on the arm of some big Deke and batting her eyes, I would hear her knock on the door of my practice room and invite me to a break.  She would make fun of the frat boy and his friends, laughing about how dumb they were.  At times she would casually lean on my shoulder and give my arm little squeezes; at other times she would be silent and distant.  On these occasions, desperate to break the ice, I would ask if I had said anything to irritate her.  “If you don’t know,” she said once, “it wouldn’t do any good to try to explain it.”

I tried to interest her in my older love, music.  Like many other young women of her class, she had taken piano lessons.  She still had some facility, but our attempts at playing sonatas were not successful.  She was used to playing by herself, so she could not keep the beat, and would not listen to the other part; I would try to follow her, but we would get further and further apart until we had to stop and start over.  After a few attempts she would get bored and want to talk.  She could still rattle through some of the Chopin and Liszt she had learned, but her approach was more athletic than aesthetic.  So after a while, without anyone saying anything, we stopped trying to make music. She would go to concerts with me and seemed to tolerate my music, up to a point–that point being when she wanted my attention.

She wanted my attention more and more as we got closer, and I was glad to give it, because it usually involved sex.  For us, unlike most of our contemporaries, this meant a lot of heavy petting and sticky underwear, but technical virginity.  Jean was desperately afraid of getting pregnant, and I could not convince her of the reliability of any birth control method.  But the promise, the possibility of a true consummation kept me attentive and eager to please.

As the cliff of graduation approached and the intensity of our sexual frustration grew, we knew something had to happen.  I was in too much of a fog to articulate anything.  I wanted her, I wanted music.  My senior recital was approaching, and I was practicing furiously–but I was also spending a lot of time with Jean.  I slept little, and stayed exhausted.  Once I fell asleep during a necking session, and caught no end of hell from Jean; she was seriously offended that I couldn’t stay awake when she was around.

The recital was a disaster.  I had a tough program, but I had insisted on it because I loved the music: Bach’s fifth unaccompanied suite, Brahms’s second sonata, and the Haydn C-major concerto.  Technique was never my strongest suit, and fatigue and nerves tangled my fingers too many times.  My friends were polite, Jean at least verbally sympathetic.  The principal cellist from the local symphony, who was in the audience during the first half, disappeared during the intermission.  My teacher, having seen my state during the preparation time, had warned me of such a result.  He had the kindness to refrain from saying “I told you so.”  The post mortem was nonetheless grim.  I remember sitting in his studio looking at the autographed pictures of his teachers–Diran Alexanian, Casals–and hearing his soft, serious, slightly accented voice tell me things I needed to know but didn’t want to hear.

“Tony,” he sighed, rubbing his bald head, “I hate to say this, but I think you should not try playing the cello as a profession.  I had thought your many other good qualities might see you through.  You make a nice sound, you have a lot of good musical instincts, as well as an intellectual understanding of music.  But you don’t have the nerves or the facility to make a good orchestra player, much less a soloist.  It’s just too competitive.  You could do school music, or better, academic music–theory, musicology.  But if you keep on with just the cello, your struggles might make you go sour on something you love, and that would be a shame.”

I was too numb to be defensive, so the words sank in.  I had begun to think of auditioning for an orchestra job that summer, but now that idea was revealed as the daydream it was.  The other possibilities my teacher suggested all involved more school, and I shrank from the prospect of more classes or scrambling for money or grants to pay for them.

Jean was ready with an answer which was all the more attractive coming from her.  She was sure, she said, that she could get me a job in her father’s company.

“He would be especially interested in helping you if we were married.”  She looked at me straight on, without blinking, slowly growing a smile.

I was floored.  I had expected a prolonged seige to persuade Jean to go steady, and to have this suggestion come from her knocked me over.  It also seemed to solve all of my problems.  So we got married.  Jean insisted that we do it fast and cheap, and present her parents with a fait accompli.   We went to a justice of the peace in a nearby small town, thinking that the college chaplain might call our parents.  My mother was upset, but accepting–I was the first in our branch of the Macleans to go to college, and my mother and uncles tried to make up in moral support for what they could not offer in money.  My father was dead.  Jean’s mother was furious, for we had deprived her of a big church wedding.  She never forgave me for that and for being only a Tennessee Maclean.  Jean’s father was not happy–he had to live with her mother’s rage, for one thing–but he was philosophical.  He was also relieved a bit after talking with me to find that I had a smidgen of common sense and some practical skills, and that I knew a little about his business.  He might get some use out of me, and get me to where I could support his daughter.

The honeymoon–two nights in a Holiday Inn on the coast–was less of the orgy my heated imagination had pictured.  Jean’s fear of pregnancy was only slightly modified by the wedding, so in addition to taking the pill, she insisted on using both a diaphragm and a condom.  Spontaniety often suffered.  I was also surprised, after our long, sweaty premarital sessions, that Jean’s sexual appetite was much more quickly satisfied than mine.  But we did find a closeness we had not known before.

So we graduated.  I stuck my cello and my few clothes into Jean’s new car–a graduation present, bought before the wedding–and we set off for Dallas.


October 23, 2010

To all you faithful readers, or would be if this were easier to navigate. Two complete mystery novels have been posted in serial form. To read the first, “Four-Part Dissonance,” go to the earliest archive and scroll down to chapter one. Scroll up for chapter two, and so on. Then go to the next dated archive and continue. Follow the same process for the second novel, “Death and the Maiden.”
I’m about to start a new serialized novel, “Time’s Bending Sickle.” It has mysterious elements, but is not a traditional mystery or police procedural. It is rather a quasi-historical piece, with a modern story paralleled by an early modern story about a real early seventeenth-century musician, composer, and mercenary soldier, Tobias Hume. Look for it soon.

Death and the Maiden, by Edward Doughtie

October 14, 2010

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Chapter 27.


Jill was happy to give Branch a room at the inn.  “The kitchen is closed, but I’ll be glad to have you take pot luck with us.”

“Thanks,” Branch said.  “I don’t want to put you to any trouble, but I recall that the restaurant in town is closed tonight and tomorrow night.  So I’ll be happy to eat any leftovers you might have from the Music Party.”

“Good.  We’ll enjoy your company.”  Branch was given his old room.  On the one hand, it was familiar and comfortable; on the other, it brought back vivid memories of Esme, memories that were decidedly mixed.

He managed to turn his thoughts to Margo, and meditated on her decency, her loyalty to her friend, her neat good looks, her excellent musicianship.  This was relaxing—he slid into sleep, and when he woke, showered, and shaved, he found Jill already busy in the kitchen.  “Coffee’s in the pot, bagels, bread, butter, jam, are all in the fridge.  Can you manage to put something together by yourself?  I’m up to my elbows cleaning this freezer.”

“No problem.”  Branch toasted a bagel and had two mugs of coffee.  He saw a bowl of freshly harvested local apples and begged one.  Then he washed his dish and mug, thanked Jill, and set off for the sheriff’s.

Sheriff Bacon welcomed Branch with a hearty cry of “Guv’nah!  Glad you made it back.”

“I’m glad to see that you made it back, sheriff.  I could see Esme picking the lock on her cuffs and wrecking your truck.  She’s a scary woman.”

“She was pretty quiet on the way back.  Anything she said could be used against her, and all that.  Speaking of which, where’s your wire?”

“Right here.  I remembered to take it off before I showered.  I’m too hairy—it smarted when I jerked that tape off.”

He handed the recorder and the coiled wire to the sheriff, who took it to a small player.  “Mind if I listen?”

“Be my guest.  By the way, is she here?”

“Nope.  Rockland is more secure.  Left her up there.”

“Good.  She’s pretty shrewd.  I’m sure she suspected I was wearing a wire, so she was pretty careful about what she said.  And if you only had the wire as evidence, you’d think I assaulted her instead of the reverse.  I don’t think I got much that will be useful at trial.  She admitted nothing except that she was aware that she was a suspect.”

“Too bad.  How about on the trip up, when she had you on the phone all the time?  Any of that of use?”

Branch was almost ashamed to confess.  “No.  It was all X-rated.  I didn’t record any of it; nothing she said had to do with the murder.  I guess she wanted me to be such a slobbering horn-dog that she could manipulate me.  I played that role until I met with her.  When I told her what we had, and that I had been stringing her along, she tried to kill me.  Directed my attention elsewhere while she picked up a rock and tried to knock me off the cliff.  She may have been planning that all along—it was a good setup in an isolated place.  And if she had brained me and I’d fallen over the cliff, it would look like an accident.”  Branch chuckled.  “One bit was funny as well as shrewd.  On the recording, when I say she pulled a gun on me, and she said ‘What gun?’ she was actually about to shoot me with a water pistol.  That was a very disarming tactic, made me drop my guard.  I’ll make a running commentary on what was happening when you listen to it, if you like.”

“Sounds like a good idea.”

“First, let me ask something.  What about her husband?  Has he been arrested?”

“Not exactly.  He’s under bond right now as a material witness, the guys in Connecticut tell me.  Apparently she didn’t contact him after she left the inn, or at least we have no evidence that she did, and he claims ignorance and innocence of everything.”

“Maybe she was loyal to him, in her fashion,” Branch mused.  “Of course, her comfortable life was linked to his financial well-being.”

They listened to the recording, stopping it at intervals while Branch recorded his comments.  “Right here, all that noise?  That’s where she tried to hit me with the rock.  We wrestled a good bit.”  Afterwards, they discussed his testimony.  He’d meet with the grand jury on Tuesday.  He’d make a full statement, and come back for the trial.

“Stay for lunch?” the sheriff asked.  “The missus made a big pot of chowdah.”

“Believe I will, and thank you.”

They retired to the kitchen, where Mrs. Bacon served up big bowls of chowder with slices of cornbread and cold cider.  “Ellis told me he was glad you were here when that lady got killed,” Mrs. Bacon told Branch.

“Hate to admit it, but I appreciate the help,” the sheriff said.

“I may have hindered things,” Branch said.  “You might have solved it sooner without me, since you were married to a good woman instead of fooling around with the murderer.”

The Bacons smiled at each other.  The sheriff said, “Would you have found out the right one if you hadn’t been—uh, fooling around with her?”

“I think so.  And so would you.”

Branch killed time until his meeting with the grand jury on Tuesday.  He walked around the bay, read, practiced his viola, even helped Jill with some small carpentry jobs around the inn, as he said, to help pay for his meals.  He called Chat a few times, partly to find out what was going on in Houston, partly to tease him with his leisure.  After checking with the sheriff and DA and confirming his obligations and plane reservation, he called Margo and made a date with her on Wednesday.  They talked on the phone so long that his cell phone battery ran out.  He learned that she taught music therapy at the medical school, played gigs around Boston, and that she had had a painful breakup with a long-term relationship in the spring, but that she was “definitely over it now.”  He found that hopeful.

He walked into the village several times, and had a hearty breakfast and lunch at the Anchorage restaurant on Tuesday before his testimony with the grand jury.  The members of the jury had questions about his affair with Esme and about her attempt to kill him.  One member, an older woman, wondered if her attack was out of jealousy or out of frustration at Branch’s lack of commitment.  The DA reminded her of the other evidence—the husband’s inheritance, the bloodstains, Elsie’s picture.  After some concern about having to call Elsie as a witness, they finally voted to indict.  The DA, a young man who seemed very bright, but probably short on experience, told Branch he thought they had a sixty- to seventy-percent chance of a conviction.  He would be notified when the judge set a trial date.

Wednesday morning Branch packed up, made his farewells to the sheriff and Jill, and set out for Boston and Cambridge.  Margo had to work until four, so Branch had some time to wander around Harvard Square and look into the Fogg and Busch-Reisinger museums, and to have lunch at Casablanca, the restaurant in the basement of the Brattle Theater, once famous for its Bogart film festivals.

At four o’clock, Branch consulted Margo’s directions and found the house off Mass Ave. where Margo had the second floor.  It was an old three-story clapboard Victorian with peeling white paint, like many of its neighbors.  But there were trees on the narrow street, and it seemed pleasant.  Parking was a problem, but Branch eventually found a spot.  He took his viola with him.  Margo didn’t answer, so Branch waited on the porch until he saw her drive up in her green Civic hybrid.  She parked in back, and soon let him in the front door with a hug and a kiss.  She looked great, Branch thought, and told her so.  She was in her workday pantsuit, a blue number that fit her trim figure nicely.  Her short brown hair shone, as did her wide brown eyes.

“You didn’t leave your viola in the car.  Good idea,” she said.  “Come on up.”

Her apartment was spacious but cozy, with lots of books, prints on the walls, oriental rugs in warm colors, and clean but comfortable-looking furniture.  “Have a seat,” she said, “I’ve got to do a little cooking.  How about a glass of wine?  Or would you rather have some Scotch?”

“Wine is fine.  Whatever you have open.”

She brought him a glass of red and started making clattering noises in the kitchen.  She emerged in a fairly short time with a glass of wine, and sat opposite him.  “I’m glad you survived the Esme attack.  And I don’t mean just her attempt to brain you.”  She smiled.

“Me too.  I’m cured.”

They looked at each other over their wine in silence for a beat.  “I’ve got an idea,” she said.  “While the oven is doing the work, let’s play a little music.  You know those Mozart duets?”

“Yes, but I haven’t had many chances to play them.”

“Well, let’s give them a try.”  She got out the music and set up two stands while Branch unpacked his viola.  She got her violin and they tuned.  They started the first duet, the one in G.  Branch struggled to keep up at first, but soon fell into the groove.  By the time they got to the cheerful rondo, Branch felt that they had really meshed, and had entered the flow state that musicians sometimes achieve, and which is one of the great rewards of playing.

They finished with smiles and laughs of pleasure.  Branch said, “I’ll have to say the obvious: we make beautiful music together.”

Margo went to the kitchen and checked the timer on the oven.  She came back and said, “We’ve got time for the next one.”  They started the one in B-flat, with the adagio introduction.  It too flowed, and after the last variation in the finale, the oven timer buzzed.

Branch helped set the table while Margo tossed a salad.  The lasagna that emerged from the oven filled the room with a delicious fragrance.  They sat and clinked glasses.  “Here’s to the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” Branch said, quoting Bogart.

“Do you have a place to stay tonight?” Margo asked.

“Guess I could go to that B&B near Central Square.  I stayed there before.”

She smiled and, Branch thought, blushed a little.  “Why don’t you just stay here?”




Death and the Maiden, by Edward Doughtie

October 13, 2010

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Chapter 26.


Esme, lying face down with Branch’s knee in her back, was showing as much of a talent for profane abuse as she had for seductive fantasy.  He was not only a bastard, but was accused of all sorts of perversion, incest, and bad habits.  Branch was getting uncomfortable in this position as well.  “Shut up.  Your hands will stay tied, but you can sit up if you’ll stay put.  Deal?”

“Shit-eating maggot.”

“Guess not, then.”  He called out again for Sheriff Bacon.

Esme groaned.  “Ok, ok.  Let me up.”

“No tricks, now, or I’ll hog-tie you with my belt.”  He jumped up, dodging Esme’s vicious kick.

She scooted back to rest against the rock, panting.  “Peace,” she said.

“Up to you.”  Branch looked at the remains of the picnic that was scattered during their scuffle.  He picked up an apple and took a bite.  “You do make one work up an appetite.”  He finished the apple and began to gather up the blanket, water gun, and other debris and put it in the basket.  Taking off his belt, he used it to tighten the strap binding Esme’s hands and to secure her bonds to her own belt.  “Doesn’t look like the sheriff is nearby.  Let’s go back to my car.”  He grasped her under one arm and pulled her to a standing position.  She kept silent.  “You walk ahead.  If you try anything, I’ll tackle you and sit on you until somebody finds us.  Now move.”  He picked up the basket and followed her.

“By the way,” he said to her back, “you are under arrest for the murder of Harriet Downey.  You have the right to remain silent. . . .”  He finished the Miranda warning from memory.  She remained silent, but flipped him the bird with both her bound hands.

They struggled over the uneven rocks.  Esme’s balance was affected by having her hands behind her, and Branch was lugging the basket.  When they reached the path, the going got easier.  Some tourists walking along the road stopped and stared at the sight of the disheveled couple.  We must look like we’ve had a really bad picnic, he thought.  When one of the tourists watching them realized that Esme’s hands were tied, he said something to the woman with him.  He was a hefty man in his thirties who, despite the cool air, was wearing a t-shirt that proclaimed his loyalty to Harley motorcycles.  He had a dark beard, tattoos, and a baseball cap on backwards.  He stopped and blocked their way.

Esme turned to him and whined, “Please help me.  I’m being kidnapped.”

Branch dropped the basket.  “Sir, she’s a murder suspect and I’m a police officer.  Please don’t interfere.”

“How do I know that?” the man asked, rolling his shoulders and balling his fists.

Branch pulled out his Houston shield.  Esme said, “It’s a fake.  Don’t believe him.  Please help me get loose.”

The man moved closer, scowling.  Knight, hero, thought Branch; who’s he going to believe, a scruffy old guy or a beautiful woman?  “I have other identification I can show you, but I have to secure this prisoner.  Please move aside.”

Instead, he stepped closer.  Branch sighed and reached into the basket and pulled out Esme’s water pistol.  “It’s just a water gun,” Esme said.  But the man hesitated.

“Please don’t make me use this.  If it were just a water gun, how do you think I captured this suspect?”

“He assaulted and raped me!” Esme cried.

Just then the man’s woman friend called out.  “Henry!  You better stay out of that.”  Henry looked unsure of what to do.

Sheriff Bacon appeared from around a curve.  “Branch!  You ok?”

“Ok, sheriff.  Please convince the citizen here that I’m not a kidnapper.”

Bacon approached the man and showed his credentials.  “Believe it or not, this lady—this woman—killed somebody down to Puffin Bay.  Sergeant Branch there is a homicide detective from Houston, Texas, sent up special to help us.”

Henry held up his hands.  “Ok, sorry.  It just looked funny to me.”  Branch noticed that the sheriff allowed his civilian jacket to open enough to reveal his pistol in its shoulder holster.

“Come on, now, Henry!” the woman called, and Henry shrugged and walked off.

“Good timing, sheriff,” Branch said.

“You read Mrs. Pilkington her rights?”  He put real handcuffs on Esme and returned Branch’s belt.

Branch tried the local affirmative.  “Ayuh.”

Bacon smiled.  “My truck’s around the bend.  Do you want to haul her back, or should I?”

“Please take her.  I’ve had to listen to her all day.”

Branch followed them to the sheriff’s truck and threw the basket in the bed.  The sheriff ran the handcuffs through the armrest of the truck.  “You weren’t planning to go anywhere, were you, Mrs. Pilkington?” the sheriff asked.

Esme glared at him.  Branch blew her a kiss.  “Behave, now.  The sheriff’s a married man.”  She stuck her tongue out at him.

Branch walked back to his car with a huge sense of relief.  He looked around at his surroundings with new appreciation.  The sun was setting, throwing shadows from the rocky banks out onto the water.  The islands offshore were illuminated by the slanting light.  Branch was suddenly tired and hungry.  He was on his own now, in no hurry; he would give himself a mini-vacation.  Continuing around the loop road, he enjoyed what he could see in the fading light, and followed the signs into Bar Harbor.  A tourist town, it was full of motels, most of which had vacancies since the main season was over.  He chose a modest one that had huge rusting anchors imbedded in the parking lot.  After checking in, he stripped off the wire, wincing as the tape pulled hair from his arm and torso.  He strolled into town and found a seafood restaurant near the harbor.  A beer, a big bowl of clam chowder, and a lobster salad further improved his mood.

Back in his room, he called Chat.  “Hi, it’s Aldo.  Still alive.”

“Damn.  Promotion delayed again.  What’s up?  You finally get something on that ho with the dough?”

“Yes.  She’s safely locked up.  She tried to knock me over a cliff with a rock.”

“You must have royally pissed her off.”

“It’s too bad.  She was a good musician, smart and pretty.  We had some good times.”

“Oh?  How good?”  Branch heard the familiar insinuation in Chat’s voice.  He was too tired to tease him.

“I’ll be back in a few days.  Got to meet with the grand jury.  Maybe visit a friend in Boston.”  Branch was not aware of that plan until he spoke it.  But why not visit Margo before flying home?

“Guess you’ll have to go back for the trial.”

“I guess so.”  Have to fly into Boston, he thought.

“Well, I hope it’s in January and you freeze your lazy white ass off.  We’re melting down here, and I’m still up to my eyebrows in work.”

“I’ll check with Sandy.  Don’t want to come back too soon and complicate the Mattingly case.”

“Don’t worry ‘bout that.  Lots of other things have everybody’s attention now.”

“Ok, hold the fort.”

He called Margo.  “Just wanted you to know that I’m alive and Esme is in jail.”

“Great.  That’s a relief on both counts.  How did you find her?  Did she give you any trouble?”

“Some.  It’s a long story.  My plane leaves from Logan when I finish up here and make a reservation.  Can I take you to dinner before I go?”

“Sure.  But why don’t I fix you something here?”

“That would be great, but I don’t want to trouble you.”

Her voice dropped.  “You do trouble me—but I don’t mind.”

“Well.”  What should he make of that?  “Thanks.  I’ll call and give you warning.  Don’t change any plans for me.”

“I have no plans.  It’ll be good to see you.”

Branch turned the conversation over in his mind until he could read it favorably.  He read for all of ten minutes before falling asleep.

The next day he enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, checked out and started the drive back.  He looked forward to coming back to Puffin Bay with the prospect of a few hours of quiet solitude.  On the road, he found some good music on the radio most of the way.  But when the reception faded, he was content with road noise and silence.

Death and the Maiden, by Edward Doughtie

October 2, 2010

Chapter 25.

Branch approached Ellsworth, Maine. He interrupted Esme’s erotic flow and told her. “Now what?”
“Take a right on number three.”
“Toward Bar Harbor?”
“That’s right. Now, do you like it better on the bottom or on top?”
“Are you in Bar Harbor?”
“Don’t be nosy. Answer my question.”
“Which do you prefer?”
“Top, of course. Don’t you remember when I . . .”
“Should I go on to Mount Desert Island?”
“Yes. And stay on route 3 at the fork. Speaking of forks, that word reminds me of …”
“Ok, I’m on the island and I just passed the fork.”
“Now. When you get to the Acadia Park entrance on the right, take it. If you pass a ranger station, stop and pay the fee. And when you get to the next fork, take the one-way road to the left. And aren’t you glad there isn’t just one way to fuck? Wouldn’t that get boring? Just think, there’s . . .”
Although he wouldn’t have believed it possible, he had grown numb to Esme’s talk. She might has well have been reading recipes. He made the turn into the park, and made the turn at the fork. The signs told him he was on Park Loop Road.
When he came to a ranger station, he paid his fee and got a map. The ranger was a young woman in a Smoky Bear hat and green uniform. As she handed him the map, she said, “Sir, we don’t recommend that you talk on a cell phone while you drive.”
“I agree. I won’t be on much longer.”
“You don’t know that,” Esme said. “I like long foreplay.”
Branch could see buildings away to his left, which he thought must be the town of Bar Harbor. Or as Sheriff Bacon would say, “Bah Hahbah.” He passed a turnoff with a sign indicating that “Wild Gardens,“ a nature center, and a museum were nearby. The road then curved to run parallel to the shore; a mountain rose up on his right. “Pretty landscape here,” he said, when Esme took a breath. “How far do I go?”
“Let me know when you pass Thunder Hole.”
“Ok. Signs point to an overlook and a sand beach.”
“Keep going.”
“Thunder Hole coming up.”
“A little further.” She paused in her erotic monologue. “You’re in that cheap little blue rental, right?”
“Ok. Just a minute. Now, stop. Pull over and park.”
“Where are you?”
She chanted, “I see you, but you can’t see me. Wait a minute.” The tone of her voice hardened. “Who’s in that truck behind you? Why, I do believe it’s our beloved potbellied Sheriff Bacon. Appropriate name, the pig. Now listen here Aldo—“
“I swear I didn’t know he was following me.”
“Oh yeah? Well, you know it now. Go tell him if he doesn’t clear out, neither of you will ever see me again.”
“If he wants to catch you, he can block the exits.”
“That’s what he thinks. Now go tell him.”
Branch got out of the car and approached the sheriff’s truck, still holding the phone. “I didn’t expect to see you, sheriff,” he said, winking hard. “Esme spotted you. She says I can’t see her until you go away.” He nodded trying to say that he meant it.
The sheriff shrugged and said, “Ok. Hope I’ll see you later.”
“Don’t hold your breath,” he said, winking again. The sheriff put the truck in gear and drove slowly down the road, scanning the hills above.
“He won’t see me. Now do you still want to see me?”
“Might as well, since I’ve come this far. Of course I want to see you.”
“Ok. See that path across the road, leading toward the sea? Take that and bear right. When the path runs out, just follow the rocks along the edge of the cliff. This is Otter Cliff, by the way. Eventually you’ll find a cozy little spot where I’ve prepared us a nice picnic. There’s a blanket, and a basket, and everything. You must be hungry.”
“Not really, just eager to see you.”
“How sweet. When you find the spot, just relax. I’ll be along soon.”
“This sounds nice. But it’s getting cold. Couldn’t we go to a motel?” Branch carefully moved over the uneven rocks. The sea splashed and roared below.
“We’ll see. We need to talk, as we women say.”
“I think I’ve found your picnic spot.” Branch found the blanket and picnic basket behind a large outcropping of rock. It was partly sheltered under another large rock. It was essentially invisible from any angle until one was only feet away.
“I’ll be there soon. Don’t be impatient, now. Save it all up.”
Branch sat with his back against the rock. After what seemed a long time, he heard a loose rock rattle, and Esme appeared. She was in jeans and a fleece jacket; her hair was tamed in a practical ponytail. Binoculars hung around her neck. She wore her canary-eating cat expression. She didn’t kiss him or say anything, but sat across the blanket from him, looking him over.
“You look great,” Branch said, “very outdoorsy.”
She smiled but didn’t speak. Finally, she reached for the basket. “Hungry?”
“I’m ok.”
“Look,” she said, taking items out of the basket, “a baguette, paté, cheese, apples. Wine. Sancerre. It means ‘sincere,’ which means ‘without wax.’ Did you know that?”
“I do now.”
She took out two glasses and poured the wine. She put the glass in front of him. She picked up hers and took a slug, not a sip. “Go ahead. Afraid I’ll poison you?”
“No. To your health.” He took a sip. It tasted all right.
She tore off a piece of bread and smeared paté on it. She took a bite and handed the rest to him. He took a bite. He scratched his wrist and squeezed the switch of his recorder. She ate silently.
“Are you all talked out?” he asked. She nodded and chewed. “What can I do for you? How can I help?”
She wiped her hands and mouth on a napkin and took another gulp of wine. “Why don’t you take your clothes off? Nobody can see us here.”
“It’s too cold.”
“I’ll warm you up.”
“No. Let’s find a room.”
She reached into the basket again. This time she came up with a small black automatic pistol—a Beretta, Branch guessed. “Take ‘em off,” she repeated.
“Well, if you won’t bare your body, how about your soul? Be sincere, be without the wax. Be straight with me.”
“All right. And I really want to help you—I want you to give yourself up.”
“I think you want me to say something I’m not going to.”
“All right. You’re holding a gun on me, so—“
“What gun?” She raised it and pointed it at him with a smile. “I don’t have a gun.”
“I’ll be straight with you. I’ll tell you what we have. Then, if you’re as smart as I think you are, you’ll see that it would be in your best interest to give yourself up. You could make a good case for compulsion. First, the blood on your robe is Harriet’s. And we have a witness that saw you, in that robe, carrying a cello that night. I think you came to Harriet’s door and asked something about Montagnana. Maybe you wanted Harriet’s opinion on whether the cello could be a Montagnana. When she opened the door, you stabbed her with the cello endpin.” Esme smiled, shook her head, but remained silent. “And I know your husband, Howard Bracken, also Pilkington, is Harriet’s heir, and that he is in deep money trouble. The notes you left for Harriet were not about music, but about trying to borrow money. She turned you down, didn’t she?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She raised the gun. “You’re trying to get me in trouble. I guess I’ll have to shoot you.”
She pulled the trigger. Branch flinched, but the stream of water hit him anyway. She laughed, and kept laughing. Branch, when he caught his breath, laughed too. “I didn’t know Beretta made water guns. I thought toys had to have orange tips.’
“They do now. I’ve had this since I was seven.” She came over the blanket and kissed him. “I really am going to miss you,” she said. She stood and pulled him up, and pulled him into an embrace and kiss. “You don’t really believe I did those bad things, do you?”
“I don’t want to. But I have to.”
“No, you don’t. I didn’t do it.” She turned him so they faced the sea. “See that island out there?” She pointed, and put her arm around his waist. He moved so that she wouldn’t feel the wire and recorder. “That’s Baker Island. It’s practically deserted. Why don’t we rent a boat and go over there? We could get naked and you could chase me around until we get really warm. Then you could catch me.”
“Sounds like fun. Maybe in a few years. You might get off, you know.”
“I’m going to get some more wine.” She let go and stepped back. “Can you see the lighthouse on the island?”
Branch was looking for the lighthouse when he heard the slight noise of a stone scraping under the clink of the wineglass. He turned just in time to see Esme lunging toward him gripping a large rock aimed at his head. He ducked and hit her arm; the rock bounced off the edge of the cliff and fell into the sea. Esme pushed at him—he was surprised at how strong she was. He slipped out of her grasp and got his back to the rock. She came at him, her mouth grimly set, making no sound. He grabbed her. She tried to knee his groin. They struggled until Branch’s strength allowed him to get her arm behind her back and force her to the ground. Then with his knee in the small of her back, and both her arms forced toward her shoulder blades, she relaxed.
Then she called out, “Rape! Help!”
“I should have brought handcuffs. Keep hollering. Maybe the sheriff will find us.”
“You bastard.”
“How about some more sweet talk? You really are a praying mantis.”
“I’ll charge you with assault and attempted rape.”
“I’ll charge you with chutzpah, as well as murder.” Branch looked around for something to use as a restraint. With one hand he reached for Esme’s binoculars and pulled the thin strap loose. He bound her wrists with the strap.
“Ouch. Not so tight.”
“I thought you liked bondage games.”
“Fuck you.”
“I won’t comment on that. I really did enjoy it while it lasted.”
“You’re not very good at that, you know. Very little staying power.”
“If you won’t call for help, I’ll have to. Sheriff Bacon! Over here!”
“No telling where he is. How long do you think you can keep me like this?”
“As long as it takes. I have some staying power.”