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Blood Lines

Here are some of my favorite short stories:

The Smart Guys Marching Society,” “Patron Saint and the following…


Blood Lines


The old man blinked awake, roused from his nap by the drone of the bush plane overhead. He glanced up, just catching its locust’s-wing shadow as it skimmed the edge of the jungle, banking toward the south. More tourists, he thought sourly, on their way to the ruins at Palenque or Bonampak.

He managed to sit up straighter in the cane chair, and with outstretched fingers grasped the slippery railing, pulling himself closer. He gasped once, from the effort, and peered expectantly down at the lake.

There she was, waist deep in the water, waving up at the disappearing plane. Her long brown hair fanned her shoulders in wet ringlets.

She turned suddenly, wholly naked, and he saw the swell of her breasts as she bent to slip below the surface. She swam with graceful, even strokes, moving through the haze that hung over the water, until she vanished amid the drooping foliage at the far edge of the shore.

The old man sighed gratefully, chin resting on the rail. A sudden rain had come up, misty and warm, and behind it a gentle gust that blew through the open spaces of the veranda. Across the lake, through the haze, the breadnut trees shimmered like ghosts.

The estate, originally built by a Belgian merchant at the turn of the century, lay deep in the jungle’s marrow, the shallow lake long since reclaimed by riotous vegetation. Even now there was just one dirt access road, the nearest village a hard half-day’s journey away. Since coming here nearly ten years ago, the man had done nothing to disturb the somber dignity of the great house, the heavy stillness of the foliage embracing it.

It was perfect, his life here. For him, and for her…

Then he remembered, and his face grew pale as chalk. The violation she’d endured, the horrible pain–

And yet, ironically, it was because of this outrage, this sin, that the girl was finally back in his life, here at his side, after the long years of estrangement.

Here, where he’d gone into hiding after being hounded by the Feds; here, where in seclusion his legendary status as the Boss of Bosses had only grown among the crime families on the East Coast; here, where he’d at last found the isolation in which he could prepare his soul for its Final Destination.

But not before he’d performed one last task. Not before he’d extended his hand one last time into the affairs of men. Not before one last, and most important, judgment had been rendered…

“Carlos!” The old don’s voice rattled in his throat. He felt numb, half-asleep; embalmed by age and illness. He pushed up from the chair with his elbows, bony points in the loose-fitting white suit. Everything ached, pinched, conspired.

“Carlos!” he called again, squinting down the length of the verandah. “Where the hell are you?”

The soft padding of sandaled feet, an urgent whisper of motion, made him turn his head. Carlos stood just beyond him on the tiled floor, hands in the pockets of his crisp valet’s uniform, head tilted quizzically. He smiled.

“Good afternoon, sir,” he said.

The old don let out a long breath. “Where have you been?”

“The radio room. We’ve heard from San Cristobal.”


“Everything’s arranged.” Carlos took a sheaf of faxes from his pocket, handed them over one at a time.

The old man studied them carefully, for a full five minutes. He could almost feel the young Indian’s impatience. Good, he thought. These new ones were impudent, impulsive. They knew too much of the outside world and precious little of the traditions of their own.

He glanced up at Carlos. A pity, really. He had the proper features, the mahogany-dark skin tones, but the eyes were wrong. The old man could read the ambition in them, the greed. It seemed inconceivable that Carlos, like the other Lacandon Indians in Chiapas, was a direct descendant of the Mayans.

“Well…?” Carlos failed to keep the irritation out of his voice. Behind him, on the other side of the lake, a chicle tree shook as a howler monkey scrambled atop it, shrieking up at the continuing rain.

“I’m satisfied,” the old man said at last, handing the faxes back to him. He swiveled in his chair, gazing past Carlos toward the lake below. “That’s all.”

Carlos stayed where he was, slowly folding the sheaf of papers and slipping them back in his pocket. He turned at the railing, looked with the old man into the mists of shore-line.

“I said you could leave now, Carlos.”

Carlos nodded, but didn’t stir. “I’ve seen her before, sir…”

The old man didn’t take his eyes from the lake, the rain pock-marking the glistening surface. Any moment now she would come gliding through the water, from the other side of the lake. She liked the rain, this golden girl, this pride of his seed…His daughter liked the rain.

“I even talked to her once,” Carlos was saying, matter-of-factly. “She was coming out of the water, and I called to her…”

The old don leaned back, long thin fingers clutching the chair-arms. He looked up at Carlos as though for the first time.

“If you speak to her again,” he said evenly, “I will have you killed. Slowly.”

For a few moments, there was only the sound of the rain in the trees, spraying the clapboards of the house, dripping from the gutters to the ancient tiles.

Then there was a hurried slap of footsteps on the wet floor, as Carlos sped down the veranda and vanished into the house…

The old don sat forward, hands folded on his lap. He scanned the mists below. Waiting.

And thought about the plans he’d made, the lengths to which he had gone. The privilege of wealth, and obsession. He allowed himself a grave smile. It would all be over soon. For himself and the girl. The gulf between them would close, and things would be as they should.

They would be father and daughter once more.

The old man let his head drop, his shoulders hunched against a sudden chill behind the rain. He told himself he could afford to close his eyes, to rest for a few minutes. Just a few minutes, before her return to his sight.

While in the trees above, unnoticed by the old man, the howler monkey flitted from branch to branch, looking for something, anything, on which to feed.


Father Thomas Hobart looked down at his hands gripping the hoe, its wooden handle as coarse as shaved stone, and as hard. But he held it fiercely, digging its gray metal scoop into the earth. Scraping the dirt. Doing the day’s work.

All around were the sounds of other tools at work, the labored breathing of the men using them. There were only eight, not counting himself, but after all this time Hobart could only put a few names and faces together.

Not that it mattered, he reminded himself. They were all the same. All the same. Broken men, failed vocations. Doing the penance of the fields. Working in the afternoon sun, sweating into their ludicrous sandals or sneakers, tending the gardens like medieval monks. Striving for their grace, he thought murkily, or at least a semblance of their ruthless piety.

He looked up at last, to see Vincent leaning on his hoe, wiping his nose with a handkerchief. Vincent was the closest thing to a friend Hobart had in the place. He gave Hobart a nod.

Hobart nodded back, straightening. He held the hoe with two hands overhead, like a barbell, and stretched. The sweat, mixed with grime, came down his forearms. The pale whiteness that had once circled his wrist, from his watch-band, was now as tanned as the rest of his arm.

The watch had been a gift from a parishioner, many years before. He remembered giving it to the Abbot when he first came here. He smiled grimly. He’d always suspected the son-of-a-bitch sold it to help buy the new wine press.

Hobart stood over a row of tomatoes, allowing himself another moment’s rest. Above, the sun was pulling new colors out of the Mediterranean sky. It was just spring, but a hot one, and already he’d caught the scent of early blossoms.

And it was then, just then, that Father Hobart realized he had no idea what day it was.

He shook his head, tried to clear his thoughts. There were still many furrows to be cut, new seeds to be planted.

Bending to work again, he felt suddenly dizzy. The heat, probably. Or lack of sleep. His head throbbed, and instinctively–an instinct reborn a thousand times–he felt near the top of his skull with anxious fingers, felt for the still-tender surgical scars, where the bullet had gone in…

It was later, and Hobart had worked his way over to the stone wall that ran along the east face. Ivy sprouted, mixed with spurts of hastily-applied cement. Beyond, in the high Apennine valley, the trees were a thick tangle of greens and browns, as unkempt as a drunk’s beard, and about as spiritual.

Hobart leaned against the wall, yawning. Vincent whistled over at him suddenly, making him glance up. Vincent tossed his hoe into the dirt, looked about at the others with comic-opera scorn, and gave Hobart the universal sign for jerking off.

Hobart smiled. Speaking during daylight hours was forbidden, but Vincent always managed to get his feelings across. The little man looked up at the sun, shook his head, then strode purposefully across the field toward the main house. His broken sandal strap, unmended for days, flapped softly in the dirt.

Hobart didn’t follow. He simply stood where he was at the wall, hoe held upright against his shoulder, like a guard on duty.

One by one, the other men made their way back to the house. But Hobart stayed where he was, almost motionless, concentrating on the rivulets of sweat now drying on his cheeks.

The idea, he told himself, was not to go crazy. To find something to focus on, and stay focused. It was the only way to endure the ceaseless work, the silent monotony. It was the only path that led to forgetting.

He’d only been here for a number of months, but already he felt part of the place, caught up in its numbing sameness. A stone among a field of stones.

The sun was going down. There was a slight wind now, and he could feel its welcome touch on his face and arms. He wanted suddenly to stand out there forever, until all the shadows came.

But the dinner bell was ringing. There, at the door of the dining hall, stood the Abbot, his robes rustling in the breeze.

Father Hobart pushed away from the wall reluctantly, carrying his hoe toward the main house. As he did every evening, at this exact time, he’d place it against the shed wall with the other tools. As he did every evening, he’d come in the side entrance to the house and shower in the common facilities.

It was the sameness, the inescapable sameness, that was supposed to do it, rub your prickly demons into smooth dead stones. Stones in a field of stones.

He had to trust in that, he knew. It was the only sure path to forgetting. And perhaps, one day, forgiveness.

He left the hoe standing with its brothers on the shed wall, and headed over to the house.


Carlos switched off the radio, then leaned back in his chair, taking a last grateful drag on his cigarette. That’s it, he thought. The final transmission.

He rose, stretched, rubbed his neck. He glanced around the small, cramped radio room and sighed. At least it was cooler after midnight, when he stole down with a bottle of tequila and listened to rock music from the pirate station up north.

On his way back to the house, along the unlit mud path, he decided to wait until morning to give his last report. The old man had gone to sleep soon after dinner, and it didn”t seem wise to disturb him.

Carlos lit another cigarette, stood smoking it just beyond the east porch. From this vantage point, he could make out the two guards trudging along the perimeter. When one of them looked in his direction, Carlos waved. The guard moved on.

Carlos shook his head. Such a place. He was glad the old man’s ill health forced him to spend so much time in his bed. Ever since the other day on the veranda, their contact had been reduced to curt exchanges of information, orders given and received.

Not that it had been exactly warm and familiar before that. Five years of near-slavish service, five years of the crazy old gringo’s insults and threats. Five long years, and now…He glanced up at the moon, floating like a pearl in oil over the mists of the rain forest. The clouds were heavy and somber, and even the sacred monkeys hid from his eyes and kept their voices still.

Five long years.

It was better not to think about it too much, he told himself. Still–he let the cigarette drop to the earth, and stepped on it.

He went quietly through the main corridor of the dark house, guiding himself as much by memory as by the pale glow of the lamps in their niches. The faces of martyred saints looked down from their portraits on the high walls, and his careful footsteps on the polished floors sounded to him like the rhythmic throbbing of a sleeping heart.

He paused in a doorway. Though he knew himself to be a modern man, he also felt that, during the shank of the night when even the macaws outside the window were silent, the house revealed itself to be a living thing, its silence merely the mute echo of its spirit at rest.

Idiot, he thought bitterly. Still the village Indian boy, frightened by the white man’s patriarchal wealth.

Beyond, in the dimness, stood the massive dining table, the four-hundred-year-old centerpiece of the room. Its wide mahogany grain meandered across its surface like dry riverbeds, shining dully in the moonlight. Carlos frowned uneasily. It was here that they ate dinner every night, the old man and that spooky daughter of his, sitting at either end of the long table and saying practically nothing.

So they’re both crazy, he thought, suddenly anxious to get on with his business. By the time he’d reached the end of the hall, and headed down the steps toward the cellar, he was even chuckling dryly to himself, so confident he was that he’d left the last of his foolish indios fears behind.

Besides, he’d had an idea.


It had been so easy…

The girl, standing at the leaded-glass window, watched the mist outside begin to rise. A pale light filtered the trees. The rain had finally ebbed.

Still, the humidity made the thick robe she’d worn from the lake cling like a shroud. She turned away from the window and shrugged it off.

Roberta crossed the bedroom–she thought of it now as her room–and pulled a simple print dress from the walk-in closet. So easy…

She tossed her thick brown hair, still wet from her regular morning’s swim. Pushing it back from her face, she headed briskly for the door, without a glance at the floor-length mirror.

As always, she walked more slowly once in the common halls, slowly and deliberately, as if encircled by heavy chains that only she could see.

Standing at the door to the library, she caught sight of Carlos. Spying on her, as usual. He quickly looked away, made a show of wiping a speck of dust from a brass wall lamp.

That’s Carlos, she thought. Always making a show. Like last night, at dinner, whisking her emptied wine glass onto his tray, wearing those ridiculous white gloves the old man insisted on when Carlos served dinner. How he must despise the old man…how he must despise us…

Yet she couldn’t help but notice his good looks, the erotic promise in his banked rage. Roberta smiled. Maybe…

But such thoughts would have to wait. For now.

She went into the library, closing the huge double doors behind her. Hundreds of leather-bound books loomed over her like dark angels from high, shadowed shelves. Roberta went to her usual table by the bay window. She sat in the overstuffed chair, sunlight splintered into dusty streams by the thick blinds.

Finally, she pulled an old book down from a shelf, and began idly flipping the pages. So easy…

Of course, she’d hated the old man for as long as she could remember. Despite the family’s wealth, the mansion in upstate New York, the trips to Europe when she was young, the gifts.

But how he’d mistreated her mother. Beat her, and humiliated her in front of his cronies, the other family bosses. Those large and dangerous men who always seemed to be in their house. And he’d cheated on her, openly, with “actresses” and “models.”

Roberta had felt his hand, the sting of his belt, all her young life. Even at the party for her First Holy Communion, when he’d caught her eavesdropping on a whispered conversation with that Congressman. She hadn’t understood a word, not one word, but he’d slapped her anyway, repeatedly, her tears staining her brand new white Communion dress…

He was a tyrant at home, as well as a monster in life. Even in private school in Switzerland, she’d read in the papers about the attempts by the U.S. Attorney to bring him to trial. One time they thought they had a case, the court date was set–but the witness soon “disappeared.”

How she’d hated growing up in that house. Hated seeing her mother wither before her time. And she’d been such a beauty when she’d married the old man; Roberta had seen the pictures.

The only fatherly presence in her life, and the only solace for her mother, had been the parish priest. He knew how they suffered, and hovered about as much as possible–drinking tea in the afternoons with her mother, taking them both to the parish Carnival, and the Christmas pageant. He was always so attentive, so kind…

A sound behind her made her start. The maid, Maria, had just come in to clean. Roberta, willing herself not to turn, could just see her out of the corner of her eye.

Maria, head bent, muttered a quick apology and exited. Roberta guessed the maid’s thoughts. Poor sad girl. Sits all day with the dead books, turning pages…

Just as Roberta had pitied her own mother, who’d grown old and ill in the don’s house. More and more, Roberta stayed away, finally choosing to live and go to college in Paris.

Until that day the overseas call came, and she flew back to sit at her mother’s bedside, as she lay dying. The old man had fled the country years before, hours ahead of a Grand Jury indictment. It was just the two of them now.

“Should I send for Father Tom?” Roberta had asked, clasping her mother’s hand.

But the dying woman had shaken her head. No, there wasn’t time. Besides, there was something she needed to tell Roberta. Something she must know…

How hard it had been, watching her mother die. But harder still hearing her last words. Because, in those final moments, Roberta’s world turned upside-down.

Thomas…Father Hobart…he was her real father. Her mother and Hobart had had an affair, many years before. He was a new priest, torn by desires he couldn’t control; she a dangerous man’s lonely young wife.

Then, when her mother had become pregnant, they knew they had to end. Never suspecting, the old don thought the baby was his. A miracle from God, a child in his advancing years…

Even now, six months after laying her mother to rest, Roberta could feel the pain that had engulfed her. All those years, the priest as a kind of uncle, a refuge… nothing but a lie.

How could he have denied her like that? Let her grow up believing she was the daughter of that man, that monster…”

After the funeral, she’d confronted Hobart, lashed out at him. No matter how he begged, how much he castigated himself for his weakness, she wouldn’t forgive him. He was weeping piteously as she slammed the door on her way out.

It wasn’t until she’d returned to school in France the following week that she learned of his failed suicide attempt. The bullet he’d tried to put in his brain. The gun in a trembling hand.

Of course, the Diocese had no choice but to remove him from the parish. On the advice of his superiors, he was sent on retreat to a monastery overseas.

Leaving Roberta with two fathers, she thought bitterly, and yet with none.

It was then that something darkened within her, that her soul turned. Her pain cauterized into rage, and then a desire for revenge. When she’d catch sight of herself in the mirror, it was only her eyes she’d see, and how they”d hardened into marble chips.

Soon, she found herself unable to look into mirrors.

As a plan began to grow, like a cancer, in her mind…

At the end of the semester, she took a plane back to the States. There was a man she had to see.

His name was Alphonse Tonelli, but in certain circles he was known as “the Hammer.” The old don’s most trusted lieutenant, fanatic in his loyalty, familiar to her since she was a little girl. Standing with the other large and dangerous men who attended the old man, yet standing apart. Huge and silent, with hooded eyes, he’d occupy a quiet corner of the kitchen or the dining room, slowly sipping a beer. Listening. Watching.

Roberta was terrified of him, especially when he smiled at her.

“Hey, little girl,” he’d say in that flat, grave voice, before bowing to the old man and heading out the side door. Often, the next day, the news would arrive that another enemy of her father’s had been found dead. Brutally bludgeoned, with a claw hammer.

It was strange to see him now, years later; older, coarser somehow. As though time had thickened him, weathered him like any other monument from the past. The hooded eyes, blinking in the afternoon sun, regarded her warily.

Roberta sat opposite him on the screened-in porch of his old tract house in New Jersey. Pungent smells of garlic and onion wafted in from the kitchen.

She argued her case before him, tearfully, beseeching him. She wanted to reconcile with her father, she explained. While there was still time. The Prodigal Daughter, returning.

“You’re the only one who knows where he is,” she went on. “You’ve got to tell me…please…so I can go to him…”

Tonelli cared nothing for the girl, of course. His loyalty–his devotion–was to the old man. Years of faithful service, bathed in blood. Yet those glory days were all gone now. Things had changed so much. There was no place anymore for the likes of him, for the Hammer…

He shifted uneasily in his chair. No, he cared nothing for her…But think of the old man’s joy, his happiness at the girl’s return. How his last days might be brightened. Tonelli could not deny him this.

He told her where the old man was.

Then she was standing, dusted by the journey, faded like a drying leaf, at the old man’s door. His eyes shone. Mother of God, could it be? The prodigal, returned…

But she seemed crushed, bruised. So young and beautiful, yet so sad. When she spoke, her words came out slowly, haltingly… like a code he couldn’t break.

The old man sat across from her in the evenings at the dining table, the fetid jungle air thick as a blanket about the great house. Why was she so guarded, afraid?

Then one night, not so long after her arrival, she told him about Hobart, the priest. Not that he’d had an affair with her mother, nor that he’d been her actual biological father.

No, she told the old man that the priest had done something else, something far, far worse…

And the old man’s eyes had turned to marble chips, points hard and deep in his wrinkled face.

Ironic, she’d thought, recognizing what she saw there. Not his flesh, not his blood, and yet how like him I am.


On another night, not too long after, alone in his room on the other side of the world, Thomas Hobart woke up in a cold sweat. He found himself clutching his stomach, the pain doubling him into a fetal crouch. He tried to form words, to call out. He was choking on his own bile.

Hobart managed to roll off the bed and start crawling toward the door. But with every second his strength was fading, and with it his will. What was happening?

His head was spinning. Then it came to him, with a supernal clarity. The old man…he knows…he knows…

The door was opening, a hushed sigh in the blackness. There, in a flicker of moonlight, a figure coming toward him…

Hobart, gasping, brought his eyes up, squinted against the darkness.

A face, looming over him. So familiar, so–

Hobart collapsed to the floor. Struggling to stay conscious, he caught a glimpse of something in the half-light, an image that seemed to explode in his brain–

A sandal with a broken strap.

Then he was on his back, the room swirling around him, shapes moving in and out of focus. Then there was the upraised hand, the gleam of a knife-blade. He couldn’t move, couldn’t–

It became unspeakable.


The old don was resting now, in his bed, Roberta sitting at his side. It was almost time for his pills, she thought, taking the vial from the side-table drawer and pouring a glass of water from the pitcher. In the past week, she’d begun assuming more and more of the nursing duties Carlos usually performed.

She put her cool hand on the old man’s forehead. The skin was hot, clammy. He’d been looking worse these last few days, weaker, spending most of his time in bed.

How strange, she thought as she wiped the spittle from his chin as he half-dozed. Just like I did with Mother, I’m sitting at his death-bed, waiting…

He stirred, peered up at her with watery eyes. His thin lips formed an ugly, satisfied smile. He seemed… peaceful. God, how she hated him.

Maria, the maid, stood at the end of the bed, making a sign of the cross. Then she went back to straightening up the room. Roberta shook her head. Christ.

Suddenly, Carlos was standing behind her, having slipped so silently up to the bed that she hadn’t even heard him.

“Sir,” he said to the old man, as if she weren’t even there.

“Carlos…I didn’t call for you,” the old man said, voice cracking. “I have my daughter now…my own blood, not some worthless–” His body jerked, as he coughed violently.

Carlos leaned forward, his shoulder just touching Roberta’s. He stared into the old don’s face.

“I have news,” he said. “It is done.”

The old man blinked, twice, then strained to push himself up on his elbows. He turned to Roberta.

“Did you hear that, Roberta?” His arms trembled with the effort of supporting him. “It is as I promised. Your tormentor is dead. Your honor is returned.”

“Then I am yours again,” she said, resting her forehead against his shoulder. Her arms went around his skeletal frame, easing him back down on the sheets. “I am yours.”

“It is the blood,” the old man said. “And, blood to blood, all that I have will be yours. I will inform the other families, I will make it known that–” He broke into a hacking cough again.

Instinctively, Roberta took a pill from the vial. “Carlos!” she snapped. “Help me.”

Carlos bent and helped calm the old man, as Roberta placed a pill on his tongue and offered the water glass. The old man gulped it, gasping. He lay back on the bed.

Suddenly, he cried out, hands twisting the sheets.

Roberta grasped his arm. “What is it?”

The old man’s eyes bore into hers. “You–you ….” His words were choked, pain-wracked.

She looked up at the impassive, silent Carlos, then back at the old man.

He mouthed more words. No sound came out. She felt the life leave his body, felt it slip away under her clutching fingers.

The old man was dead.

Maria, from across the room, screamed. As she came slowly toward the bed, Carlos whispered urgently to her in Spanish. She stared, wide-eyed, then bolted out of the room.

But Roberta hardly noticed. She’d leaned down to hear the old man’s heart, listen for any tell-tale rattle of breath. It’s over. He’s dead. Face hidden from Carlos, she permitted herself a brief smile.

Then, contorting her face into grief, she looked up at Carlos. To her shock, the young man was smiling. He was also holding a revolver, leveled at her.

She sat up in her chair, found her voice. “What the hell are you doing?”

“The old man was poisoned,” he said calmly. “Killed by his own daughter, who’s always hated him. So that all that he had would be hers.”

“But I didn’t–”

“I know, you stupid bitch.” His smile faded. “I did. With the arsenic in that pill you just gave him. I switched them earlier, and made sure Maria was here at his regular pill-time. As a witness. Or should I say, another witness, in addition to myself.”

All she could do was stare at him.

“Don’t tell me you’re sorry he’s dead,” Carlos went on. “That you haven’t been waiting like a vulture for this day to come. You think I didn’t see you for what you are? Don’t insult me!”

He looked past her at the old man, lying motionless on the bed. “Did you think I would accept nothing after my years of servitude to that…that thing?”

Carlos turned back to her, fingers tightening on the gun. “Since you arrived, I saw his hopes rise…that you would tend to him in his last days. I saw that I should have nothing…”

Finally, Roberta spoke, her own voice oddly calm. “Will you call the local police now? Is that it?”

“You mean, what passes for the law in this place?” He gave a hollow chuckle. “No, I had a better idea. A few days ago I contacted some people in the States…” He nodded toward the old man. “His people. Told them my suspicions about you. I have been promised a great reward.”

“His people?…”

Carlos nodded again, enjoying this. “One of them flew down here just yesterday. I’ve already told Maria to send someone to the village to bring him.” He leaned back against a large bureau, watching her carefully. “We’ll just wait here, together. I believe it’s someone you know.”

Later, when Tonelli’s heavy tread in the doorway made her turn, she was struck not so much by his size, and the labored movements of his body as he lurched toward her, but by those hooded eyes. How they were even more cold, more dead, than she’d remembered.

“Hey, little girl,” said the Hammer.

And in the trees above the great house, that same howler monkey flitted from branch to branch, looking for something, anything, on which to feed.

Written by Dennis Palumbo and reprinted from The Strand magazine, summer 2007 issue.

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Patron Saint

Here’s more of my favorite short stories:

The Smart Guys Marching Society and Blood Lines.” Enjoy reading!


Patron Saint

Dr. Jo Kepler folded her hands on the desk and waited for her patient to compose himself.

“This is so lame,” Detective Thomas Nolan said, squeezing he eyes with his thumbs. Teardrops dotted them like beads.

His florid face, showing the strain of his nineteen years on the job, turned away from her. “You must think I’m a total pussy.”

Jo Kepler smiled in a way that managed to be genuine and clinical at the same time. A single mother in her late 30s, she was pretty in a subdued, unaffected way.

“We’ve been coming to this point for weeks now,” she said gently. “It’s a sign of growth, of emotional maturity, that you can risk showing me how you feel.”

“And none of this gets written down in your report, right?” Detective Nolan asked, glancing at the file folder on her desk.

“I’m a therapist and you’re my patient,” she said. “The fact that I work for the Department doesn’t change that. What happens in this room is confidential. What I do in my report is make my recommendation to your supervisors as to your fitness for duty.”

He gave a dark laugh. “And you base that on what, exactly? My drinking, the panic attacks, the sleepless nights? Hell, I wouldn’t sign off on me.”

She didn”t respond, letting a silence fill the space between them. Bright morning sunlight baked the walls, warming the thick air. Soon it would be stifling. It was August in Los Angeles.

Nolan stirred, uncomfortable. Sweat glistened on his forehead. He was 45, according to his personnel file, but looked ten years older. Though big and tough as a bear, his body had already begun to sag. He had a cop’s beer gut, a cop’s stiffened joints, a cop’s dour, suspicious squint.

A look Jo Kepler knew well, and not just from the patients she treated. She’d seen it for years in her father’s eyes, before he was killed in the line of duty when she was twelve.

Now Nolan was training those cop’s eyes on her. “You know why they’re makin’ me come here, don’tcha? It’s just the Department coverin’ its ass before they yank me off the Task Force and stick me behind a desk.”

“There are concerns, Tom,” she said carefully. “I’ve seen too many good, solid cops get overwhelmed working a case like this.”

“You think I’m wiggin’ out?”

“Are you?”

“Why? ‘Cause I just blubbered like some loser about my baby brother? We used to be best buddies, and now we hate each other’s guts. Boo hoo. End of story.”

“Your “blubbering,” as you put it, is the good news. The memories of your bond with Eddie when you were young, your grief over the way things are now, it’s the most human I’ve ever seen you. Frankly, I was beginning to wonder.”

“Thanks a lot, Doc.”

She smiled “I’m on your side, remember? And like it or not, we’re stuck with each other.”

Nolan sat forward, head hanging between his shoulders. “Maybe. But once it gets out that a guy’s been sent here.”

“We try to see that it doesn’t,” she said. It was an understatement, she thought. As a police psychologist, one of a dozen on permanent staff at the LAPD, she worked in a small, single-windowed office in a nondescript bank building in Chinatown. You couldn’t even see Parker Center, police headquarters for the city, from here.

Everything was done to normalize the experience for the cops sent to her, including allowing them to keep their guns. Jo could see the bulge under Nolan’s blue jacket. A lot of people questioned the wisdom of this policy, which was why therapists like Jo also had a panic button installed within easy reach under their desks. If a cop became violent or self-destructive, a guard stationed out in the corridor could be summoned in seconds.

In her six years with the Department, Jo had never had to push that button. Things had gotten pretty intense more than a few times, but she’d handled it. She was good at her job.

“I meant what I said before,” she went on now. “All of your feelings are welcome here. About anything going on in your life. God knows, you’re under tremendous stress. With all the political pressure, the media…”

“And it’s only gonna get worse.” He shook his head. “We just found victim number eight last night. Eight women, Dr. Kepler. The bastard’s laughin’ in our faces.”

Jo lowered her eyes. “Same as with the others?”

Nolan nodded. “Prostitute. Beaten to death. No evidence of rape, no usable forensics at the scene. He’s gotta be wearin’ gloves. Only blood is always the victim’s.” He paused. “He must surprise ’em. No defensive marks, no skin samples under the vic’s fingernails. Perp just uses her for a punchin’ bag til he hits something vital, and that’s it.”

He looked off, grimacing. “Can you imagine the rage, the fury it takes to beat someone to death with your fists? I mean, Christ…”

His words hung in the air for a few moments, then he reached in his jacket pocket and withdrew a manila envelope. “This is weird, and probably grosses you out, but I gotta show ’em to you.”

“I understand,” she said. “I’m getting used to seeing them. God help me.”

Nolan’s eyes flickered up at this rare personal disclosure. Jo took a fresh breath and chastised herself. It wasn’t that she had professional qualms about sharing personal feelings with a patient, when appropriate. It was just that, as a police psychologist, she needed to maintain a slightly more authoritative stance with the officers assigned to her. Cops–especially males–responded to hierarchy and chain of command, and it was always a battle gaining their respect. And an even tougher one keeping it.

Nolan spread the crime scene photos on her desk. Steeling herself, Jo examined them. The poor girl. Sad, lifeless eyes peering up at her. Bloodied, broken body splayed against the throw rug, like some discarded toy.

“Her name’s Gina Hill,” he said. “Twenty-six. Lived in West L.A. Three arrests for soliciting.”

“Pattern’s the same,” Jo noted, struggling to keep her voice calm. “Naked, except for the St. Christopher medal.”

“Perp loops it around her neck. Since, it’s not blood-spattered or marked up, the M.E. figures it’s placed there post-mortem. Some nutso message from the killer.”

“Or maybe some kind of ritual. Isn’t Christopher one of those saints the church has discredited””

“Yeah, but tell that to a dyed-in-the-wool Catholic like my mother. She still won’t eat meat on Fridays.”

Jo carefully picked up one of the photos by the edges. “Christopher was the patron saint of travelers, right? People prayed that he’d guide their souls to heaven.”

He shrugged. “You’re askin’ the wrong guy, Doc. I haven’t seen the inside of a church in twenty years.” He sat back in his chair and unwrapped a fresh pack of Camels.

“Your team have any idea why victim number five, that girl down in Palms, didn’t have the medal on her?” Jo asked. “She’s the only break in the pattern.”

“Maybe the killer forgot,” Nolan said. “Or maybe he got interrupted by something, heard a noise and took off before he could put it on her.” He lit up a cigarette and inhaled gratefully. “By the way, thanks for bendin’ the rules about the smokes.” He nodded at the ashtray she’d begun leaving out for him.

“No problem. You have enough on your plate without taking away your nicotine fix,” she said.

“Thanks, I think.”

They share a smile as she got up from behind her desk and went to the window. As she turned up the dial on the venerable A.C. unit, she could feel his eyes on her body. It wasn’t the first time she’d been appreciatively appraised by one of her patients. While this was due in part to the fact that, in the words of her adolescent daughter, she was “still a quasi-babe,” she also knew it was an attempt on the cop’s part to maintain some macho distance, some sense of control. Okay, so maybe the Department did give her the right to evaluate them, testosterone gave them the right to evaluate her.

At least that’s how her ex had explained it. A lawyer in the district attorney’s office, Steve claimed to know a lot about the police. “With cops,” he’d state in that patronizing tone that set her teeth on edge, “it’s pure siege mentality. Us versus them. They think it’s the best way to keep the upper hand.” Then, with a grin: “Hey, what can you expect? Basically, they’re all Neanderthals. Except for you old man, of course.”

Of course, she’d thought. Prick.

Of all the things she didn’t miss about her ex-husband, his pompous lectures were near the top of the list. Along with his politics, questionable ethics and flagrant womanizing. That his genes could help produce a daughter as wonderful as Jenny baffled her to this day.

The air conditioning came on suddenly, swirling the smoke from Nolan’s cigarette as he scooped up the crime scene photos and put them back in the envelope.

Still standing at the window, Jo felt the thick knots in her shoulders, the strain in her lower back. She needed a two-hour workout, a massage, something.

She loved her job, but there was no denying its emotional–and sometimes physical–rigors: rushing in the middle of the night to some cop’s home to defuse a violent domestic dispute; advising Department negotiators during hostage situations; cradling grief-stricken widows outside the E.R. Plus her first-year-trial-by-fire, when an armed robbery turned a peaceful North Hollywood neighborhood into a war zone, and she’d found herself strapped into a flack jacket to deliver psychological triage to embattled police at the scene.

It took a toll. Dealing everyday with stressed-out cops complaining about their work, their spouses, their addictions to booze and drugs and danger.

Or else not complaining. Keeping it all locked inside. The ones who didn’t talk, didn’t do much except sit and glare at her, like problem kids sent to the principal’s office. Which is how most of them saw it. Their bosses turning them over to some shrink, some stuck-up bitch who thought she could get inside their heads.

They rarely talked. Instead, they developed ulcers, sexual problems, busted marriages. Sometimes they got put behind a desk. Sometimes they just ate their guns.

At least Nolan talked, Jo thought, coming back to her desk. It had been tough getting him to open up, to trust her, but he’d come a long way in their two months together.

Then, earlier in today’s session, to her utter surprise, he’d even shed some tears. Not about the job, or his frustrations heading up the Task Force trying to stop this serial killer. Not even about his recent divorce. His tears had been for someone else.

“I know our work has been primarily about the case,” Jo said now, settling in her seat. “But I’m grateful that you’re letting me see into other parts of your life as well. Earlier, when you were telling me about your brother–”

“Eddie’s just an asshole,” he said, stubbing out his cigarette. “A total screw-up. The crap he’s put our family through…”

“And the tears when you were recalling the way you were as kids, the powerful bond you shared…””

“So I lost it for a couple minutes. So what?”

“It seemed to me you were in touch with some deep, painful feelings.”

“Don’t you get it? It’s this damn case!” He stood up violently, the chair tipping back, clattering on the linoleum floor. “It’s messing with all our heads. Like Charlie Greer. Did I tell ya about that? I had to cut him loose, send him back to Vice.”

“No, you didn’t tell me.” He’s wired tight as a spring today, she thought. Handle with care.

He rubbed his eyes. “Greer got the call on Roberta Ruiz, while I was with the lab guys workin’ on victim number four. So he had to deal with Roberta. Man, it really shook him up. He said he can’t look at no more naked dead girls.” Nolan’s laugh turned into a smoker’s cough. He spoke between spasms. “Hell, maybe he’s healthier than the rest of us.”

“Maybe,” Jo said. “At least he acknowledges his limits.”

“Yeah, well, tell that to the next vic. We gotta keep our shit together if we’re gonna nail this wacko. That’s our job. You gotta just let it go through you, like a bullet that misses all the internal organs and comes out the other side.”

Jo shrugged. “That still leaves a wound. A scar.” She shifted in her seat. “But let’s get back to Eddie.”

He wheeled on her suddenly, hands slapping down hard on the desk, making her jump. He seemed to tower above her. Jo tensed, aware of the power in his huge arms, the bulk of his shoulders. “Leave my brother outta this,” he said angrily. “What is it with you shrinks, eh? No matter what the problem is, you gotta dig around in the family.”

“Take it easy, Tom.”

He leaned in closer. “Besides, aren’t we supposed to be talkin’ about how my parents screwed me up? Hell, I’ll lay it out for you. My sainted mother, the delicate Irish colleen. My violent, abusive father. Every damned night, Mom weeping and praying. Dad drinking and screaming. Me and Eddie caught in the middle. You do the math.”

Jo kept her face composed. It was important to keep him talking. Whether he knew it or not, he was finally letting her in. His anger was a window to a deeper part of him, where the pain lived.

“You loved your younger brother. You protected him, looked out for him.”

“That’s what brothers do, isn’t it?” He glared down at her, hands on the desk closing into fists. She pretended not to notice.

“Covered for him when he lied,” she went on, “or ditched school, or shoplifted at the mall.”

“So what?”

“You wanted better for him. You said so yourself, at the beginning of today’s session. You hated seeing how he broke your mother’s heart when he got arrested for drunk driving, or–”

“Again, what’s the point?” He moved to a far corner of the room, fidgeting with his tie, his anger fading. “So we’re like a bad movie, ok? One brother becomes a cop, the other a low-life scumbag.”

Jo let out a breath. “Pretty active guy for a low-life. Assault charges, drug convictions. I guess the deeper he sank into his world, reveled in it, the more you felt an obligation to be a cop. Get the bad guys. Balance the scales.”

“Puh-leese.” Nolan laughed. “They actually pay you to do this to people?”

“Tell me you’re not John Wayne out there,” Jo said, pressing him. “Explain your two commendations for bravery above and beyond the call.”

“I lost my head.” A wry smile. “Twice.”

“Bullshit. You’re always volunteering for extra duty. Didn’t you even volunteer for this Task Force””

“So I’m a civic-minded guy. Big deal. I’m still countin’ the years ’til I put in my twenty and can pension out. Just like everybody else.”

A thick silence. Nolan just stood there, looking at her. He seemed to deflate a bit.

“Tom, I’d like you to sit down, all right?” She nodded at the overturned chair. “And easy on my furniture.”

He smiled sheepishly and sat. But his face was still flushed, his breathing labored. Fumbling with his pack of Camels, he finally managed to light another one.

“Remember our first meeting,?” Jo said, “how you described yourself?”

“Yeah. I said I was always the first cop on the scene. First through the door. Kind of a precinct joke.”

“You care, Tom. About your family. Your brother. You care about doing your job, stopping the bad guys. That’s why these murders are eating you alive. Why you always have to show me the crime scene photos. So I’ll get it. See what you see. Understand the pain you’re feeling.”

“Yeah”” He blew a smoke ring. “I figured I showed ’em to you to gross you out. Knock you down a peg. Show you what goes on in the real world, outside of this nice, safe office.”

“Maybe at first that was true. But not now. Now you want me to understand you. Your heart. Your cause.”

He waved her off. Then, after a heavy silence, he said, “I don’t wanna talk anymore. Can I go now?”

“Not yet.”

The sharpness in her own voice surprised her. But she couldn’t let him leave. Some vague notion was taking shape in the back of her mind, like a photo slowly developing, coming into focus.

Nolan’s eyes, meeting hers, were opaque. Unreadable.

Jo steadied herself. She had to do this just right. “Where’s Eddie now”” she asked.

“Ungrateful shit’s back at my folks’ place, living over the garage. He always crashes there when he’s broke, or when there’s too much heat. Last time, he stole money right out of my old man’s wallet, wrecked their car.”

“Why do your parents put up with him? What is he, thirty, thirty-two?”

“He’s their son, for Christ’s sake! Their blood!” He spat the words at her, as though they tasted bitter. “You wouldn’t understand. The way we were raised, you don’t turn your back on your family. Not even when–” He stopped himself.

“When what””

He didn’t reply.

“It’s killing you, isn’t it”” she said.

His face grew darker, etched with pain and anger. “I don’t know what the hell you’re–”

“He’s evil, Tom. You know it and you hate him for it, and you also love him.”

“Shut up!”

“That’s what’s eating at your insides. The love and the hate and the guilt.”

“I said, shut up, bitch!” His hands gripped the chair arms, propelling him out of his seat.

Jo’s heart was pounding, but she kept on. “You can’t stop him, and you can’t turn him in. And yet you have to do something for his victims, even if it’s just a gesture, a token to guide their poor souls on their way out of this life.”

Nolan was standing now. He brought his huge hands up, fingers spread, as though to shield himself from her words.

“You–you don’t know–” he said, almost stuttering.

Jo took a breath. Under the table, she shifted her knee a few inches to the left, feeling for the panic button. Where the hell was it?

“I do know, Tom,” she said, softening her voice. “I know because you want me to know. Remember what you said? You’re always first on the scene. The first to get close enough to the victim’s body to slip on the St. Christopher medal, before the other cops see, before the M.E. arrives to examine her. That’s why victim number five, Roberta Ruiz, wasn’t wearing the medal. It was the one time you weren’t first on the scene. Greer was. By the time you joined the team there, it was chaos. Cops, Crime Scene techs. There was no chance to bless her, to protect at least her soul, if not her life.”

Nolan was backing away, eyes wide. His mouth was moving, but making no sounds.

“Tommy…” Jo got carefully to her feet.

Finally, Noland found a voice–one she’d never heard before, a high-pitched sputter, the keening of a child. “Sweet Jesus, stay with me. Sweet Mother of God, protect me.”

Jo gasped. She knew now, with blinding clarity, the price Tom Nolan had paid for keeping his horrible secrets. Now, with the truth revealed, his psyche was literally unraveling…

Instinctively, she came around her desk, hands reaching to touch him, as though to pull him back from some dark place.

The blood was roaring in her head. Fear knotted her stomach. It all seemed unreal, like a feverish nightmare unfolding… “I understand, Tommy,” she heard herself saying. She forced her legs to move her toward him, as he backed up against the far wall. “You were doing the only thing you could do.”

The detective’s eyes were blinking, as though against a harsh light. His voice had sunk to a whisper. “Holy Mary, Mother of God…”

Jo took another step closer. “But it has to stop now, Tom. We have to call Lt. Rossi. Get him to send a unit to your parents’ house and pick up Eddie.”

But Nolan was shaking his head.

“We have to, Tommy. You know that.”

Her eyes searched his face, beseeching him. Looking for the man behind the grief, the terror, the guilt.

His words were choked. “He’s not there.”

“Not there” Did you tell him you knew? Did he run?”

She took his hands in hers, gripped them with a fierce strength. “Where is he, Tom?”

“Where he can’t hurt anybody anymore.”

He leaned back against the wall, as though finally giving up the ghost. He closed his eyes, let his shoulders slump.

Jo froze where she stood, as the implication of his words sank in. The breath seemed to go out of her.

With an effort, she steadied herself. Suddenly, absurdly, she was conscious of the noise from the air conditioner. The car sounds from outside. But at least the roaring in her ears had stopped.

She grew calmer still. No, this wasn’t a nightmare. This was real. And Detective Tom Nolan, regardless of what he’d done, was first and foremost her patient.

“Tommy…” She stood next to him, stroking his arm. He was docile as a child, head hanging down.

Voice quiet, almost serene, he said, “I buried him behind the batting cage at Beeman Park. We used to play there every day as kids. We were a team. Second base and shortstop. The Nolan brothers, guarding the infield.”

“You’ll have to take the police there,” she said softly. “Show them exactly where you put Eddie.”

He nodded, oblivious. “It’s okay, though. I put the Christopher medal around his neck. And I said some prayers. God will understand. Eddie–I mean, it wasn’t really his fault. Those girls…he just wasn’t in his right mind. You know?”

“Yes, I know,” Jo said. She returned to her desk and picked up the phone.

Tom Nolan stayed where he was, huddled against the wall. His lips were moving again, perhaps in silent prayer.

Jo paused, phone in hand, and looked at him. She wished she shared his faith in the power of the St. Christopher medal and that she had one to give him for the journey he was about to take.

Written expressly by Dennis Palumbo for WRITTEN BY, Copyright 2002.

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Mystery Stories by Dennis Palumbo

Another of my favorite short stories:

Plus Patron Saint and Blood Lines.” Enjoy reading!


The Smart Guys Marching Society

I’d made the popcorn, as always, but at least Fred brought the beers.

“Can’t be a meeting of the Smart Guys Marching Society without some brewskis,” he said, letting the bottles rattle noisily as he dropped the bag on my new coffee table.

“Hey, watch it!” I lunged for the bowl of cheese whirls, now perched precariously at table’s edge.

Bill, munching peanuts, reached past my hand for the framed photo. “You got it framed!” he said–or, rather, mumbled. A lone peanut escaped his mouth, bounced off the throw rug, and scurried under the sofa.

“It’s a goddam feeding frenzy around here.” I was crouched by the sofa, reaching under for the peanut. All I came up with was a fistful of dust balls.

Bill looked at Fred, smirking. “Is he a good boy or what?”

“I happen to like a clean house,” I said, wiping my hand with a napkin.

“Lemme see the  picture,” Fred was saying, craning to see over Bill’s shoulder. It was the Polaroid we’d taken with the auto shutter last week of the four of us–me, Bill, Fred, and Mark. Not a pretty sight. We looked like the chorus of a musical called Forty-Something: assorted beards, glasses, and receding hairlines, in sneakers, shorts and one particularly vivid Hawaiian shirt.

“Whew,” Fred said, wincing at our smiling, casual poses. “It’s a good thing we’re smart.”

“That’s open to debate,” Mark growled, coming in the porch door, laden with grocery bags. His dark glasses, dark hair, and military-stiff bearing–a legacy of his career as an Intelligence officer turned journalist–were softened as always for me by his willingness to drop a few actual bucks for some real eats.

“My favorite Smart Guy!” Bill exclaimed, bouncing up to take bags from Mark. “Cold cuts, slaw…now we’re in business.”

“Look, are we here to eat or talk?” Fred looked concerned. A lawyer by trade, but philosopher by avocation, he rarely let our monthly discussions stray from what he liked to call “the big issues”–life, death, truth, etc. The usual suspects. He stroked his neat beard thoughtfully. “today we’re doing Middle East policy, right?”

“I hope not,” Bill said, settling back on the sofa. He had the trim, wiry frame of a marathon runner, which in fact he was. “I brought a great Atlantic Monthly article about health care.”

He pulled copies of the magazine article from his back pocket, passed them around. A long-time actor and theater director, he had a tendency to try to control the flow and content of our discussions. With little success, I might add.

“What happened to the Middle East?” Fred complained.

Mark shrugged. “Don’t look at me. I was nowhere near there all week.”

“Ha. Ha.” Bill nodded toward the pages in our hands. “We’re doin’ health care.”

As a psychotherapist, with years of experience handling conflicts, I decided it was time to apply my professional skills to the impasse.

“We’ll flip a coin,” I said, doing do. Unfortunately, it bounced off the table and, with a perversity I’d swear was deliberate, rolled under the sofa.

Mark looked glum. “It’s gonna be a long afternoon.”

Let me explain. The Smart Guys Marching Society began as an impromptu bull session a couple of years before, when the four of us (and our wives and kids) were barbequing in my backyard.

It was a typical Southern California day, the smog doing a slow dissolve over the Hollywood Hills. Lazy Sunday conversation turned to impassioned debate, the four of us guys huddled around the smoking grill. Women and children were scattered about, doing real life, while we grappled with such pragmatic concerns as Roman military strategy, foreign aid, and the merits of certain dead film directors.

“Can you believe these guys?” Bill ranted to his wife, throwing up his hands. “They think Sturges is overrated!” She stared back at him, unblinking.

We decided to make it a formal event, every Sunday afternoon. Stag. We didn’t plan it that way–our wives simply had the good sense not to want to come.

“I have better things to do,” Mark’s wife reportedly told him.

“Like what?”

“Like…anything.” Case closed.

Anyway that’s how the whole thing started.  Every Sunday afternoon (excepting holidays, kids’ birthdays, and visits from in-laws) the four of us–therapist, actor, journalist, and lawyer–met in my game room to scarf down munchies, trade insults, and debate the issues of the day.

This particular afternoon, however, would take a decidedly different turn, one that would change our lives, and the course of the Smart Guys, forever…

The conversation had somehow drifted away from the Middle East, health care reform, and other such rhetorical stalwart to various tales of unexplained phenomena.

“But that’s just my point, ” Fred was saying, pretty exasperated by now. “We know from Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle that the observed is changed by the observer.”

“So–?” Bill said.

“So, that explains unexplained phenomena. We co-create reality, see? Research indicates that the more you believe in ghosts, for example, the greater the likelihood that you’ll encounter one.”

“Geez, I don’t know.” Mark shrugged. “I believe in intelligent debate, and in all the years I’ve come here I haven’t encountered it yet.”

Fred gave him a look. “The salient factor is that reality, or what we call reality, is co-determined by both observer and observed. Subject and object, if you prefer.”

“Reality is reality, dammit.” Mark folded his arms.

Bill gnawed a fingernail reflectively. “Does this have anything to do with Jung?”

I perked up. “That depends. Why?”

“I have this friend. An actor. I directed him last year at the Taper. George is a real fitness buff, hits the gym every day. And he’s noticed a strange phenomenon, and is making a hobby of compiling other people’s experiences, to see if there’s a pattern at work.”

“Since when do actors care about other people?” Mark said, opening another beer.

“Ignore him,” I said. “What phenomenon?”

Bill went on: “”George said he notices that when he goes to his locker in the gym’s locker room, even if it appears totally deserted, the moment another guy shows up, it turns out this other guy’s locker is right next to his.”

“Coincidence,” Mark said.

Bill shook his head. “George has made a study of this. No matter what part of the locker room–I mean, he’ll just pick a locker at random–and four times out of five somebody’s stuff is in the next one. With all these other lockers around.”

“That is strange,” I admitted.

“He’s asked lots of other people, and they’ve had the same experience. It’s like there’s some kind of primal, unconscious need to bond or something.

I nodded. “That’s why you mentioned Jung…Maybe you’re referring to his concept of synchronicity.”

“Oh, yeah…like when you’re thinking of someone, and the phone rings and it’s that person on the line.”

“Or,” I said, “perhaps the locker-room phenomenon is caused by some mechanism in the collective unconscious toward merging, or community…”

Fred stared at a corn chip as though it held the secrets of the universe. “I’m thinking now in terms of quantum physics. The tendency of subatomic particles, even at vast distances, to resonate at similar vibratory frequencies.” He popped the corn chip into his mouth. “I mean at that level, everything–you, me, this table–is just a collection of vibratory frequencies, out of which comes form.”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “That place where Buddhism and physics meet. Emptiness rising into form, manifesting reality.”

Bill’s eyes were glazing over. “I’m sorry I brought it up.” He rose, stretched. “We gettin’ low on onion dip?”

“In the fridge,” I said.

Before Bill could take another step, however, a tub of onion dip came sailing out of the kitchen. He caught it reflexively.

We all whirled around, stunned.

“I couldn’t help but overhear,” the newcomer said brightly. “Thought I’d save you a trip.”

It was my wife’s Uncle Isaac, his bearlike figure filling out his workman’s overalls. A retired contractor (a jack of all trades, he’d called himself), he was staying with us for a few weeks. I’d almost forgotten about him.

“Uncle Isaac,” I said, “let me introduce you around.” He shook hands vigorously with each of the guys, his pale eyes gleaming. Then he stood back a bit, stroking his thick mutton chop sideburns with a crooked finger.

My wife explained to me once that calling him “Uncle” was a courtesy; there was such a convoluted tangle of branches on her family tree that nobody was really sure how (or even if) Isaac was actually related. It seemed as though he’d just always been…family.

“How long have you been in the kitchen” I asked. “You shoulda come on in.”

“I didn’t want to interrupt. Pretty deep-dish stuff you boys talk. Like college professors.”

Fred shrugged. “You should’ve been here last week. We mostly sat around debating which Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue had the best cover.”

“You’re welcome to join us,” Bill offered, then glanced ruefully at the coffee table. “I think there’s half a sandwich left, and some Cheez Whiz.”

“A tempting offer, but I had a big lunch. I just came back from a constitutional around the neighborhood.” Isaac settled into the corner armchair. A lamp table beside it was stacked with books he’d brought along. Mostly sci-fi paperbacks. Asimov. Heinlein. Silverberg. The classics. “If you don’t mind, I’ll just listen in. Please don’t take offense if I doze off.”

“No problem. Kind of a weekly occurrence around here.” Bill carved a groove in the onion dip with a potato chip. “Now, where were we?”

“We were talking about reality,” Fred said. “Or Jung. Or locker rooms.”

It was then that I first noticed that Mark was sitting somewhat pensively. He hadn’t said a word in some time.

“Hey, you okay?” I asked.

“I was just thinking about something,” he said, adjusting his glasses. “All this stuff about unexplained phenomena…It reminds me of something that happened earlier this week. It’s kind of…strange, that’s all.”

Fred looked up. “C’mon, tell us. Something at the paper?”

“Well, I’ve been doing a series for the Times about street cops, the nightly grind, you know? I’ve been riding the graveyard shift with these cop buddies, Vince and Harry, and a real mess came down a couple nights back, down on Walnut Street.”

“I think I saw that on the news last night.” Bill said. “Some drug dealer got killed–knifed–by a cop.”

Mark nodded. “The cop’s name is Sergeant D’Amato. Your basic Neanderthal. Couple of reprimands for excessive force. Always carries a pearl-handled folding knife in his belt–strictly against department policy–but everybody knows…

“Well, I’ve been riding with Vince and Harry’s unit out of D’Amato’s precinct, and all I hear the past two weeks is about D’Amato’s obsession with Tommy Slick.”

“Who?” Fred asked.

“The victim,” Bill said helpfully. “Street dude right out of NYPD Blue. Your stereotypical snarling, murderous, gang-connected drug dealer. Pacino in Scarface, without the speeches.”

Mark ignored him. “As I was saying, D’Amato’s been trying to bust Tommy for years on a major rap, but Tommy’s been too…” He smiled. “Well let’s say Tommy’s been too slick for him.”

“Tommy Slick,” Fred muttered. “His real name’s probably Kablonski or something.”

Mark sighed heavily. “Look guy, if I want sidebars on this story, I’ll write ’em myself. Anyway, D’Amato’s sure got his reasons for hating Tommy. Couple years back, Tommy killed D’Amato’s partner in a police raid–”

“Wait a minute! He killed a cop–and walked?”

“Nobody could ID Tommy as the shooter. But D’Amato swore it was Tommy, that he saw him waste his partner before taking off.”

“D’Amato’s upset,” I mused, “…feels guilty over his partner’s death…He needs to fixate the blame somewhere else…”

“Spare us, willya?” Mark rolled his eyes.

“Yeah,” said Bill impatiently. “Besides, this is all just back story, right?”

“You could call it that,” Mark said. “Anyway, all this week, the precinct’s humming like a live wire…D’Amato’s got Tommy’s main squeeze Carla in the strike zone–”


“He was grilling her, as they used to say,” Fred explained. “She must have a lousy public defender.”

Mark shrugged. “Carla’s no deb queen herself. Juvie hall at thirteen, soliciting and dealing charges–real nice career track, if ya know what I mean…Anyway, D’Amato’s been pushing her hard. A big deal is rumored to be going down, with Tommy behind it. D’Amato’s been wanting to take him down big-time, and figures this’ll do it.”

“But why would Carla help him?”

“Turns out she’s furious at Tommy ’cause she heard he was cheating on her.” Mark leaned in. “Anyway, two nights ago, I’m in the patrol car with Vince and Harry, and a call comes in requesting backup. Seems the girl’s taking D’Amato to where Tommy’s holed up–”

“We hit the siren and red light, and go jammin’ over to this rundown place on Walnut. D’Amato’s in his car with Carla, who’s wailing and crying. We run up to them, Vince and Harry carrying the heavy artillery. Just then, a window smashes above us, glass showering down, and a couple of Tommy’s guys are shooting at us.”

“Jesus Christ,” said Bill.

“Yeah, that name came up,” Mark said. “I mean, all of a sudden it’s a goddam shootout. Vince is yellin’ at me to stay down–Hell, I’ve got more combat experience than he does!”

“Finally after about ten minutes of this, D’Amato tells Carla to stay put and goes chargin’ into the place. Vince and Harry got no choice, they go crashing in after him, with me bringing up the rear.”

“What are you, nuts?” Fred stared at Mark, wide-eyed.

“It gets worse,” Mark said. “Carla bolts outta the car, and the next thing I know, all of us, including her, are scurrying up this darkened stairwell inside the building–Carla screamin’ her head off, trying to warn Tommy–

“Bullets are flying everywhere, and then we’re upstairs, in Tommy’s place. One of his gang is heading out the window. Vince yells, “Freeze!” and the perp drops his gun. The other perp is in a heap by the bed, covered with blood….”

“Where the hell was Tommy?”

“That’s what D’Amato wanted to know. We’re all crouched in the doorway, guns drawn, Carla and me pushed behind the cops. Vince is covering the perp, still frozen halfway out the window..

“‘Where’s Tommy, dirtball?’ D’Amato yells at this guy. He doesn’t say squat. Suddenly, D’Amato lifts his piece–‘I’m sprayin’ the walls, Tommy!’–Vince is grabbing for his arm. Just then, Carla breaks free, runs into the middle of the room. D’Amato roars like a banshee, goes right in after her.

“Suddenly, a door flies open–it was a special hiding place, no bigger than a closet…Anyway, this door flies open and Tommy’s body falls out–right into Carla’s arms! She reels back, screaming, as the body hits the floor. There’s a knife sticking out of his chest, blood seeping through his shirt.”

“A knife?” Bill asked,  his voice a whisper.

Mark nodded, eyes narrowing. “Carla takes one look at it and yells up at D’Amato, ‘You bastard! You killed him!” Before anyone could stop her, she pulls the knife from Tommy’s body and lunges at D’Amato! It takes me and Vince to restrain her, Vince finally knocking the knife loose…We all stand there, staring at it on the floor. Even stained with blood, there was no mistaking the pearl handle.  It was D’Amato’s knife.”

“What?” Fred and I exchanged looks.

“Yeah. It was his knife that killed Tommy Slick. I glanced instinctively at his belt, where he keeps the knife–it was gone.

“So Vince says to him, ‘How’d ya do it, D’Amato? But D’Amato just keeps staring down at Tommy, his face hard as stone.”

Mark sat back, took off his glasses.

“What happened?” I asked.

Mark shrugged. “Homicide and Internal Affairs are all over it. Vince figures D’Amato did it, but nobody can dope out how.”

“What does D’Amato say?”

“‘Prove it,’ is all he says. ‘Maybe my knife wanted to kill the bastard more’n I did.'”

“He’s crazy,” said Bill.

“Not so crazy,” Fred replied. “I mean, if he did it, how did he do it?’ He turned to Mark. “You say this hidden closet was closed the whole time?”

“Like a drum. Apparently Tommy had had it constructed as a hiding place just in case of a raid or something…a little one-man bunker, just for him.”

Bill looked thoughtful. “Maybe somebody else stabbed him…ya know, earlier, before you guys got there…”

“Vince thought of that. Like maybe one of the other perps on the scene…Tommy goes in to hide, leaving his two men to shoot it out with the cops. So one of the gang stabs him. The only problem is, where did he get D’Amato’s knife to do it with?”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “We’re making this way too complicated. You said D’Amato grilled Carla for two whole days. What if she spilled the beans earlier? What if he got the hideout’s address from her, goes over earlier in the day, gets Tommy alone and stabs him, and stashes him in the secret closet?”

“How would he know about it?” Fred asked. “unless Tommy conveniently told him, just before getting stabbed.”

“Carla told him about it,” I said.  “So D’Amato kills Tommy, getting revenge for his dead partner–”

“And where were Tommy’s two men while this was going on, out getting a pizza?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. Anyway, D’Amato comes beck, then he radios for backup and does the big raid charade. Meanwhile, Tommy’s already dead.”

“Interesting theory,” Mark said, smiling. “Stupid, but interesting. For one thing, the coroner puts the time of death at roughly when we broke in there. And, hell, I saw the knife in his chest–that wound was fresh.”

“Okay, let’s be logical,” Fred said. “It was nighttime, gloomy…probably the lights were shot out anyway…”

“That’s right,” Mark said. “And it all happened kinda fast.”

“So who’s to say D’Amato didn’t somehow get into the room ahead of you, the cops, and Carla…It would just take seconds to slip the knife through a door slot, killing Tommy in that hidden closet.”

“I’m telling you, that closet was airtight,” Mark replied. “Built flush with the wall, so that you couldn’t even see a door without looking closely. I didn’t see it until it fell open and Tommy tumbled out.–Besides, we all got into that room about the same time. I don’t believe D’Amato could’ve stuck a knife through the door jamb, even it he’d known where it was.”

“Then what are we left with?” Bill asked.

Mark smiled. “D’Amato’s knife magically left his belt, found its way into a sealed hidden closet, and stabbed Tommy Slick to death. This in a matter of seconds, in front of witnesses.”

“I still think one of Tommy’s men did it,” said Bill. “Didn’t you say one guy was down but the other one was trying to go out the window when you broke in?”

“That’s right. But according to him, Tommy jumped into his special hiding place as soon as the shooting started. The guy swears Tommy was in there the whole time–he never came out, and nobody went near the door–until Tommy fell out dead…”

“With D’Amato’s knife in his heart,” I said. “Talk about your unexplained phenomena.”

There was a long silence. Bill frowned at Mark.

“That’s it?” he demanded. “What’s gonna happen?”

“Who knows? D’Amato won’t talk…it’s kind of perverse on his part if you ask me…He’s so glad Tommy’s dead, and that his knife was the instrument, it’s like he doesn’t care now what happens…Though one of my sources in the department says that if charges are filed, D’Amato intends to plead innocent.”

“Which leaves us nowhere,” Bill said. “On the other hand, maybe they’ll charge the knife with murder–and get D’Amato as an accessory.” But no one was smiling.

Suddenly, a voice broke the silence.

“What does he look like?”

We all turned. It was Isaac, comfortably settled in the armchair, his cherubic face shining. Tell you the truth, I’d forgotten he was there.

“Look like?” Mark said, with some irritation. “Who? D’Amato?”

“No, no,” Isaac replied. “I mean George, that actor friend of Bill’s.”

“Oh yeah, the guy in the locker room,” I said.

“What does that have to do with anything?” Fred asked. He glanced warily at Mark, and then at me.

“Look, Uncle Isaac…” I must admit, I was somewhat embarrassed.

“I was just thinking, ” Isaac went on, leaning back in his chair. “I mean, about that curious phenomenon of the locker room. I was wondering what George looked like…”

Bill shrugged. “Very handsome, in that hunky kind of way.”

“If you like that type,” Fred muttered.

“You see,” Isaac said, “this fellow George noticed that whatever locker he chose–even if each day he chose a different area of the locker room at random–another guy would show up, his stuff in the very next locker. In a sea of available lockers, the odds almost always favored this coincidence.”


“So I just thought coincidence–or even the collective unconscious, or a field of subatomic particles inclined to vibrate cooperatively–might be nudged along a little if George were a handsome man. Perhaps other men who might find him attractive would make it a point to pretend their locker was next to his.”

“But George said the guy would show up, open the locker next to his, and start taking his stuff out–”

“Or start putting it in,” Isaac said, “in such a way that it looked as if he were taking it out. I did that once in high school–many, many years ago, as you can imagine–when I was attracted to this girl named Shirley. I opened the locker next to hers, claiming it was mine, and put a book in and took a book out, while we stood there talking. Of course, it was the same book. It’s really quite easy to do, especially if the locker door opens toward the girl, so her view is blocked as to the locker’s real contents.”

“Look, Isaac…” Mark tried to remain calm. “As interesting as that is, what we’ve been talking about is–”

Isaac sat forward, eyes crinkling. “Yes I know. Very mysterious. Unexplained. Your classic locked-room murder…only in this case, it’s a closet.”

“Are you trying to say something, Uncle Isaac?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Just a question I have. I was wondering why Carla attacked Sergeant D’Amato.”

“She freaked out when she saw Tommy had been stabbed,” Mark answered. “She recognized the knife and wanted to kill him.”

“Are you trying to say something, Uncle Isaac?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Just a question I have. I was wondering why Carla attacked Sergeant D’Amato.”

“She freaked out when she saw Tommy had been stabbed,” Mark answered. “She recognized the knife and wanted to kill him.”

“So I assume her fingerprints are on the knife.”

“Of course. From when she pulled it from Tommy’s body to attack D’Amato.”

“I’m afraid that’s where we disagree,” Isaac said, stroking his side-burn. “I think she grabbed the knife and attacked D’Amato in front of all of you to disguise the fact that her prints were already on the knife–from having stabbed Tommy.”


“But how? When?”

“When Tommy conveniently fell out of the closet, into her arms.”

“But D’Amato’s knife killed Tommy.”

“I know. She was holding it in her hand at the time.”

We were all talking at once. Isaac waved us down. “Look, what do I know? I wasn’t even there. Mark was.”

“That’s right,” he said. “And she couldn’t have planned it. I saw Tommy’s body fall out of the closet–”

“Did I say she planned it? Look…” Isaac ticked his thoughts off on stubby fingers. “Here’s a tough girl, angry at Tommy for cheating on her. D’Amato sweats her till she tells him where Tommy is. She’s probably feeling very mixed emotions–hurt, rage, a desire for revenge, guilt…But she’s a realist, too. What does she think Tommy’s going to do when he finds out she led D’Amato to the hideout?”

“So now you’re saying the murder was planned?”

“No,” he replied calmly. “I’m saying that the opportunity presented itself. I’m suggesting that when Tommy fell out of his hiding place, into her arms, in that darkened room, it would only take a moment’s thought for her to conceive of stabbing him…right there and then…”

“I get it,” Bill said excitedly. “Then screaming as his body hits the floor, as though in shock–”

Isaac shrugged. “Maybe in real shock…in horror…at what she’d done…Who knows? But she kept her wits enough to know her fingerprints would be on the murder weapon.”

“So she pulled the knife from his chest and attacked D’Amato…thus creating the impression it was at that moment she first touched the knife.

“Like George in the locker room, only in reverse,” said Isaac. “Pulling out the knife disguised the fact that she’d been the one who put it in.” Isaac folded his  hands on his ample stomach.

“But how did she get the knife in the first place?” Mark asked.

“You said yourself, she ran from D’Amato’s car and joined the rest of you, clambering up the stairwell. In al that confusion, a girl with Carla’s street background and criminal record could certainly lift the knife from D’Amato’s belt.” He closed his eyes reflectively. “After all, she needed some kind of weapon–some way to defend herself in case things got nasty up there. Remember, she was playing a very dangerous game…both sides against the middle.” He smiled. “Moreover, she is a thief. Thieves do take things.

Bill scratched his chin. “You might be onto something, Isaac. But there is still one thing I don’t understand. How come Tommy fell out of his hidden closet?–He did fall, right, Mark?

“Hell,  yeah…kinda crumpled, pushing the door open as he fell. But if Isaac is right, he hadn’t even been stabbed yet…”

“So what happened  to him?” Fred asked.

Isaac looked at Mark. “You said Tommy’d had the closet built for just such an emergency–small, flush with the wall, airtight seal…Tommy’s man said he’d seen him get in the closet at the first sign of trouble…and that the door never opened till Tommy fell out. That’s about ten minutes, right, Mark?”

“More like fifteen.”

“Well, fifteen minutes in a small, airtight compartment…I think Tommy merely passed out from lack of air, fell forward–”

“Pushing the door open as he fell,” I said excitedly. “Right into Carla’s arms…”

There was a long pause. Finally, Mark turned from Isaac to the rest of us. “Well that makes as much sense as anything else.”

“Pardon me,” Isaac said. “But it makes more sense than anything else.”

Fred chuckled drily. “I think he’s got us there.”

Mark was on his feet, heading for the wall phone. “I’m gonna run all this past Vince…If he presses Carla hard enough, she might come off clean.”

“Especially if that nut case D’Amato wises up and pleads innocent,” Bill said. “Him and his magic knife…”

I shook my head. “I still think it’ll bother him that somebody else got Tommy Slick after all…”

“Who cares?” Fred was smiling at Isaac. “The important thing was you! That was really something, Isaac.”

The old man gave a quick nod. “My friends’ll tell you, modesty’s not my strong suit. But it’s nice to know I can still rub two thoughts together.”

“Are you kidding?” Bill raised his drink. “I say a toast is in order…I think we’ve found a new member of the Smart Guys Marching Society.”

“That’s a great idea,” I said.

“Works for me,” Fred chimed in. He tossed a beer to Mark, standing at the wall phone. “Raise one with us, Mark. We’re initiating Isaac into the Smart Guys.”

Mark toasted him. “Sorry about that, Isaac.” Then, turning to the phone, he said, “Vince?…you got a minute? You’re not gonna believe this, but…”

Article written by Dennis Palumbo. First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, September, 1996.