Showing posts with label fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label fiction. Show all posts

23 September 2016

Writing the Historical Mystery


      We at SleuthSayers are delighted to announce our newest regular member, O’Neil De Noux. He is a New Orleans writer with thirty-two books in print and more than three hundred short stories published in multiple genres. His fiction has received several awards, including the Shamus and Derringer and the 2011 Police Book of the Year. Two of his short stories have appeared in Otto Penzler’s Best American Mystery Stories anthology (2007 and 2013), and he is a past Vice President of the Private Eye Writers of America. Please join me in welcoming my old friend O’Neil De Noux.
— John Floyd

by O’Neil De Noux

Accuracy vs. Fiction

      Joseph Pulitzer wrote on his newsroom wall – “Accuracy, Accuracy, Accuracy.” Excellent advise for journalists but fiction writers are not journalists and we do not write history books. Historical accuracy is important in the historical mystery but is it more important than your story? I say no.

When we write historical fiction we are writing FICTION. I have a degree in European and Asian History and have had historical articles published in academic journals. I’ve also penned fifty historical fiction short stories among the 300-hundred plus short stories I’ve sold.

In writing academic historical articles, I strive to be as accurate as humanly possible. Nearly all history graduate students take a class in HISTORIOGRAPHY, the study of historical writing. They know unless you are an eye-witness to an historical event – and that’s one person’s subjective observation – then you must rely on first hand accounts of other contemporary witnesses or second hand accounts complied by other historians. So why worry if you get a minor detail wrong in your historical fiction as I did when I had a character wearing a Banlon shirt several years before Banlon was introduced? Oh, yes. Someone caught me and I had to miss recess that day.

Historians in critically-acclaimed history books also get things wrong. Ever read history books of the Napoleonic Wars? British Historians and French Historians paint nearly opposite histories of the same period. It’s almost funny.

Back to my first statement - when we write historical fiction we are writing FICTION – I have fudged on historical accuracy to write a better story because, in my opinion, historical fiction is like someone’s name. John Smith is a SMITH, part of the SMITH family, not the JOHN family. Historical Fiction is FICTION and fiction outranks history, otherwise you’re writing a history book.

Fiction writers make up stuff. We make up characters and events, sometimes with an historical backdrop.

Artistic license was taken when I wrote my historical-mystery THE FRENCH DETECTIVE, set in 1900 New Orleans. As a New Orleanian I know the term po-boy did not originate until the 1929 streetcar strike. The muffuletta sandwich was created at the Central Progress Grocery Store in 1906. I used the terms anyway. I’ll probably get a detention slip.

Additionally, I updated the arcane language and dialogue of whatever period I’m writing for a 21st Century audience. I could not have the characters speak as people spoke at the beginning of the 20th Century. Actually, a great number of the people in THE FRENCH DETECTIVE spoke French or Italian at the time. So I wrote the book for a 21st Century audience. There goes another recess in the playground.

In my 1950 novel HOLD ME, BABE, I have a scene where a father gives his daughter a hula hoop and the scene works well. The hula hoop didn’t come about until 1958. I noted it at the beginning of the book to save some smart-mouth from emailing me how I’m wrong.

At the opening of my short story “Death on Denial” which appeared in FLESH & BLOOD: DARK DESIRES Anthology, Mysterious Press (2002) and was chosen for the BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2003 Anthology, Houghton-Mifflin, I put the following quote to set up the story: “The Mississippi. The Father of Waters. The Nile of North America. And I found it.” Hernando de Soto, 1541. de Soto never said that. I made it up because it’s a story. IT’S FICTION.

In my short story “General Order No. 28”, which appeared in ELLERY QUEEN MYSTERY MAGAZINE (May 2004 Issue), I quoted the order penned by Gen. Benjamin Butler. I was fortunate to have a photograph of the printed order and therefore quoted it verbatim. I didn’t have to make it up. I did, however, make up just about everything else in the story. Bottom line – do not be restrained by historical accuracy.

One more example and I’ll shut up. After his success with “A Streetcar Named Desire” on Broadway, Tennessee Williams had occasion to return to New Orleans where he was accosted by an uptown dilettante who chided him for his description of the streetcar lines. She told him if Blanche DuBois took the streetcars as described in his play, she wouldn’t end up on Elysian Fields Avenue. “They simply don’t run that way,” said the dilettante.

Williams replied, “Well, they should.”


PS: Y’all do know Hitler and Goebbels were not burned alive in a movie theater as depicted in INGLORIOUS BASTERDS.

I have to sign off now. I’m due in the principal’s office.

O’Neil De Noux

25 June 2016

Damn Right, there's ME in my Characters!


by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl)

Several times a year we do these reading and signing events.  And people ask you a pile of questions about your books.  Most are repeat queries that you’ve heard a dozen times before.  So you get pretty good at answering them.

Lately, I was asked a question that I didn’t have a pat answer to.  In fact, it really made me think.

“Do you make up all your characters, or do you put some of yourself in them?”

I’d like to say that every character I write comes completely from my imagination.  For the most part, they do.  I can honestly say that I have never seen a real person who matches the physical description of any of my characters.  (Not that I would mind meeting Pete.  But I digress…)

Back to the question:  are there bits of myself in my protagonists? 

PROOF NO. 1 (others will follow in later posts)

“I am SO not a salad girl.”

Some people say this is one of the funniest lines in my screwball mob comedy, THE GODDAUGHTER.  It is spoken by Gina Galla, goddaughter to the mob boss in Hamilton, the industrial city in Canada near Buffalo, also known as The Hammer.  Gina is a curvy girl.  She says this line to her new guy Pete, as a kind of warning.   And then she proceeds to tell him she wants a steak, medium rare, with a baked potato and a side of mushrooms.

Apparently, that’s me.  So say my kids, spouse, and everyone else in the family.

Eat a meal of salad?  Are you kidding me?  When there is pasta, fresh panno and cannoli about?  (I’ve come to the conclusion that women who remain slim past the age of fifty must actually like salad.  Yes, it’s an astonishing fact.  For some people, eating raw green weeds is not a punishment. )

Not me.  I’m Italian, just like my protagonist.  We know our food.  Ever been to an Italian wedding?  First, you load up with appetizers and wine, or Campari with Orange Juice if you’re lucky.  When you are too stuffed to stand  up anymore (why did you wear three inch heals?  Honestly you do this every time…) you sit down, kerplunk.  Bring on the antipasto.  Meat, olives, marinated veggies, breadsticks, yum.  Melon with prosciutto.  Bread with olive oil/balsamic vinegar dip.  White wine.   

Then comes the pasta al olio.  Sublime.  Carbs are important fuel, right?  And I’m gonna need that fuel to get through the main course, because it’s going to be roast chicken, veal parmesan, osso buco, risotto, polenta, stuffed artichokes (yum), more bread, red wine.

Ever notice that salad is served after the main course in an Italian meal?  Good reason for that.  We aren’t stupid.  Hopefully, you will have no room left for it.

So yes, my protagonist Gina shares an important trait with me.  She likes meat, dammit.

So you can be a bunny and eat salad all you like.  Bunnies are cute and harmless.

But Gina and I are more like frontier wolves.   Try making us live on salad, and see how harmless we will be.

Which is what you might expect from a mob goddaughter from The Hammer.

Do you find bits of yourself sneaking into your fiction?  Tell us here, in the comments.

Melodie Campbell writes the award-winning Goddaughter mob comedy series, starting with The Goddaughter which happens to be on sale now for $2.50.  Buy it.  It's an offer you can't refuse. 
P.S.  My maiden name was 'Offer.'  No joke.  Although I've heard a few in my time.

28 November 2015

I’m Not My Protagonist! Oh, wait a minute…


by Melodie Campbell

My college Crafting a Novel students often hear me say, “You can’t make every character sound like yourself.” And it’s true. Most beginning novelists (at least the ones in my class) write themselves into their books. The star of the book – the protagonist - sounds and looks an awful lot like the writer himself. Has the same likes, dislikes, and insecurities. But is of course, more heroic.

In fact, we come slamming up against the famous saying, “Write what you know.”

And some know themselves pretty well. (Others, not at all, but I digress…)

A protagonist who is a barely veiled, idealist version of yourself? We’ll allow you that for your first book. But if an author persists in writing the same protagonist over and over again, in every book and series they write, things get pretty stale.

So that prompted me to look at my own series to see what I had done. Ten books in now, I held my breath.

The Character I wish I was

I started the Land’s End Fantasy Trilogy when I was dearly in need of escape. My mother was dying. I remember looking at her hospital bedroom wall, and thinking, ‘if I could walk through that wall into another world right now, I would.’ That’s how the first of the series, Rowena Through the Wall, came about. I started writing it in the hospital.

Rowena isn’t me. She is the ‘me I wish I was,’ at least at that difficult time. I wrote the character I wanted to be. She’s prettier than me, more generous than I am, and in the end, more courageous. I was dealing with the issue of courage at that time. Courage to face what was coming and what was inevitable. I wonder how many readers of that series would nod their heads, hearing me say that now?

The ‘Me’ my Mother Wanted Me to Be

Next I grabbed A Purse to Die For off my shelves, a book I co-wrote with Cynthia St-Pierre. This book is in a different genre – it’s amateur detective, or classic mystery. The second book in the series, A Killer Necklace, has just come out.

The protagonist is a fashion diva – a television personality from the Weather Network. She’s drop-dead pretty, and always put together.

I am not. Spending more than ten minutes on my long hair is an impossible chore for me. You won’t find high heels in my closet. I like clothes, but am not a slave to fashion.

But my mother was. My mother was a fashion diva until the day she died. We’re pretty sure she was the longest subscriber to Vogue magazine, ever. Mom dressed me in designer clothes all my childhood. She was delighted when I did a little modeling as a young woman.

I never quite came up to her standard of fashionista though. “Put on some lipstick,” she would say.
“You look like a ghost!”

Looking at the series now, I can see that the main character is the ‘me my mother wanted me to be.’ It was, in a way, my tribute to her. Wish she could have been here when the first book was published.

The Closest I get to Me

So where am I in all my books? That’s easy.


I’m The Goddaughter. Sort of. In this wacky crime caper series, the protagonist is a mob goddaughter, who doesn’t want to be one.

I’m half Sicilian. I had a Sicilian godfather. I had to wait until certain people died in the family before I wrote this series.

In Gina Gallo, the ambivalence is there. ‘You’re supposed to love and support your family. But what if your family is this one?” Gina says this in every book of the series. Those words came directly from my mouth.

This book is meant to be laugh out loud funny. I let loose with my own wit, and shook off the inhibitions. Not that I’m very inhibited normally. But in The Goddaughter series, you get the real me peeking out. Not idealized. Not always upstanding. Sometimes just looking for a way out of a real mess, possibly of my own creation. But kind of fun to be with, I think.

So that brings us back to the beginning. One of the delightful things about being an author is allowing yourself to ‘become’ a character other than yourself, as you write. Fitting yourself into their skin, so to speak. As you write more, this becomes more fun, and more of a goal. I LOVE putting myself into the mind of a killer in a short story, if only for a little while. It’s a kick to ‘pretend’ to be someone else, by writing their story.

Let’s be honest: who needs drugs, if you’re an author? THIS is the ultimate escape.

Do you relish creating characters and living their lives through your fiction?

On Amazon

20 June 2015

Killing People is what I Do



by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl)
 
“Why would you ever want to write about murder?” said the horrified relative.  “Why not write a nice little romance?”

Why indeed?

As I quickly added another relative to kill in my next book (you would be shocked how often that happens….) it occurred to me that there were many reasons to write about murder.

1.. It’s the challenge of creating the clever puzzle.  Plotting a mystery is like playing a chess game.  You always have to think several moves ahead.  Your reader is begging you to challenge them, and is working to beat you – meaning to guess the killer before your detective does - to the end.

2.  Plot is paramount.  Murder mysteries start with action – usually a murder.  Yes, characterization is important, and particularly motivation.  But murder is by nature an action, and thus something happens in the book you are writing.  And quite often, it happens again and again.

3.  It’s important.  This is murder, after all.  We’re not talking about a simple threat or theft.  A lot is at stake.  Murder is the final act.  The worst that can happen.  The end of it all.
 
4.  It’s a place to put all your darkest fantasies.  There are a few people I’ve wanted to kill in my life.  They did me wrong.  And while I do have a bit of a reputation for recklessness, I value my freedom more.  So what I can’t do in reality, I relish doing in fiction.

5.  Finally – it’s fun. This is the part I don’t say in mixed company (meaning non-writers and relatives.)  I can’t explain exactly why it’s fun – you’ll have to trust me on this part.  But plotting to do away with characters in highly original ways is a real power trip.  I’m smiling just thinking about it.

Of course, I can understand where some of the relative angst comes from.  In A PURSE TO DIE FOR, a gathering of relatives for a funeral results in the death of one or two. 

In THE GODDAUGHTER’S REVENGE, a cousin of Gina’s does her wrong.  So she does him back, in a particularly crafty and oh-so-satisfying way.

It was entirely accidental, that use of relatives.  Honest.  I wasn’t thinking of anyone in particular.

 Not much I wasn’t.

(You can follow Melodie at www.melodiecampbell.com.  Better still, buy her Goddaughter books.  It's an offer you can't refuse. Especially since her maiden name was 'Offer' - not kidding.)



Available at all the usual retail locations, including Amazon

23 May 2015

Worst Typos Ever - Take 2!


by Melodie Campbell

It happened again, and this time it was my fault.

You know how it happens.  Spellchecker has an evil twin that changes your word by one letter, and you don’t notice it until it goes to print.  

Public becomes Pubic.  Corporate Assets becomes Corporate Asses.  The Provincial Health Minister becomes Provincial Health Monster.  We’ve all been there.

Readers may recall that last year, I wasn’t too happy when the virtual blog tour company paid by my publisher changed the title Rowena and the Dark Lord to Rowena and the Dark Lard.  Sales were not stellar.  However, the hilarity that ensued was probably worth the typo.  Seems there were all sorts of people willing to suggest alternative plot lines for a book about Dark Lard.  Many were a mite more entertaining than the original concept (she said ruefully.)

Here’s a small sample:
Protagonist moves back to Land’s End and opens up a bakery.

Protagonist and love interest return to Land’s End and become pig farmers.

Protagonist messes up another spell that causes all who look at her to turn into donuts.

It’s enough to make a grown writer cry.

Well, this time I did it to myself.

REALLY not cool to request a formal industry review for a book and misspell the title.

No matter how it reads, "Cod Name: Gypsy Moth" is not a tale <sic> about an undercover fish running a bar off the coast of Newfoundland...

That wasn’t enough.  People were quick to respond with suggested plot lines on Facebook.  Other authors (22 in fact) had to wade in <sic>.

he'd have to scale back his expectations - a bar like that would be underwater in no time.

and here's me waiting with 'baited' breath

Readers will dive right into that

That's a whale of a tale

that book will really "hook" a reader

Smells pretty fishy to me

definitely the wrong plaice at the wrong time.

We're really floundering here; no trout about it.

Okay!  In the interest of sane people everywhere, I’ll stop on that last one. 

The real name of the book? 
CODE NAME: GYPSY MOTH
“Comedy and Space Opera – a blast to read” (former editor Distant Suns magazine)
“a worthy tribute to Douglas Adams”  (prepub review)

It isn't easy being a female barkeep in the final frontier...especially when you’re also a spy!
Nell Romana loves two things: the Blue Angel Bar, and Dalamar, a notorious modern-day knight for hire.  Too bad he doesn't know she is actually an undercover agent. 

The bar is a magnet for all sorts of thirsty frontier types, and some of them don’t have civilized manners. That’s no problem for Dalamar, who is built like a warlord and keeps everyone in line. But when Dal is called away on a routine job, Nell uncovers a rebel plot to overthrow the Federation.  She has to act fast and alone.

Then the worst happens.  Her cover is blown …

Buy link AMAZON
Buy link KOBO

12 May 2015

Mariel– The Story, Part II


by David Dean

As promised in my last piece, here's the conclusion of "Mariel" (Originally published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine's December 2012 issue):

Mariel


That night, as Mariel lay awake in her bed, she contemplated her efforts to date at exposing Ripper’s murderer and was bitterly disappointed with the results. Though occasionally blessed with flashes of innovative vigor, her intellectual resources had been sorely taxed by the whole affair. She stared blankly out of her curtain-less window and thought of almost nothing.

The backyard was bathed in the cold illumination of a full moon that created black and white etchings of once-familiar objects. Ripper’s empty chain-link pen was captured near-center frame of her nocturnal reverie, its gate standing forlornly open, forever awaiting his impossible return. A spill of shadow ran like blood from the dog house and onto the brilliant concrete pad it rested upon.

Mariel felt her eye lids grow heavy, while above her the ponderous footsteps of her mother measured the distance from her bathroom to her bed. This was followed by a groaning of bedsprings and a loud yawn; then silence descended over the household. Outside, something glided soundlessly from out of a tree, only to vanish within the greater shadows of the forest. Mariel’s eyes began to close.

As she was drifting off, she saw something moving stealthily along the darkened tree line that formed the natural boundary of her yard. As she was often a nocturnal traveler herself, this did not, at first, alarm her. Mariel had spent many a night prowling Crumpler Lane and its environs, and had on more than one occasion allowed herself into the homes of their neighbors using emergency keys that they had thought were cleverly hidden within flower pots and beneath paving stones. In fact, her midnight forays and cool boldness had become something of a neighborhood legend.

This had been several years before however, shortly after the loud divorce of her parents and the twaining of her family into a Mother-Daughter/Father-Sons arrangement. Mariel had hoped that she would discover that her brothers were simply sleeping over at some neighbors’ house but never seemed able to catch them at it. When the state’s child services were brought in, her mother took drastic action and placed a latch on Mariel’s bedroom door.

She watched dreamily as the figure detached itself from the shadows and emerged, glowing, into the moonlight. The man looked familiar, but the bright, ghostly light only served to erase his features. He glided across the littered lawn of her back yard in a direct line with her bedroom window and a small, shrill alarm began to sound in Mariel’s head. She struggled to come fully awake and sit up.

The man disappeared from view as he reached the wall of her house and for the first time sound entered into the hushed scene. Mariel heard the scrape of something metal and remembered the rusty ladder that lay beneath her window. She had not needed that ladder since her mother ceased locking her in at night and it had lain, discarded and forgotten, until now, in the rank grasses of her backyard. It was this sound that set her in motion.

Sitting up, fully awake now, she slid noiselessly from her bed and began stuffing her pillows beneath her blankets. Once done, she dropped to her hands and knees and began to crawl to the closed bedroom door. It had been some time since her mom had locked her in and she hoped that she had not done so this night.

Behind her a head rose cautiously within the frame of the window. Mariel froze as soon as she saw its elongated shadow begin to crawl up the opposite wall, then, ever so slowly, lowered herself into the welter of dirty clothes and discarded dolls and toys that formed the tangled landscape of her room. She sank from sight within the camouflage of her own environment.

Peering out from beneath a damp towel that she draped over her head, Mariel saw the silhouette swivel slightly; then focus on the lumpy bed revealed in the moonlight. For several moments the scene remained frozen in this attitude. Then the window began to squeak like the tiniest of mice.

Mariel knew that she could call out to her mother and perhaps, if she had not had too much to drink, awaken her to the peril she faced. But this was not part of Mariel’s rapidly forming plan.

Instead, she snaked an arm upwards for the doorknob. With any luck she could ease herself out into the hallway as the intruder made his way into her room, then…use the latch that she, herself, had been confined with so many times before. As for the window, she had simply to race around to the back of the house, tip the ladder over and he was caught like a rat! Then, and only then, she would yell bloody murder! Wouldn’t everyone be surprised at what she had accomplished? Mariel began to grin beneath her covering.

She found the doorknob and began to turn it. From behind her came the hiss of clothing sliding over the window sill followed by a soft thump. Things were happening a little faster than she had planned and so she tried to hurry a bit more. She could hear her own breathing as she slithered into the opening she was making.

Then Sailor began to hiss and yowl, only just now deciding that this stranger in his room was not welcomed. Mariel looked back over her shoulder, she had completely forgotten Sailor.

The cat had been a gift to her mother from a former boyfriend who had worked on a clamming boat, hence the name, ‘Sailor’. Naturally, he took up with the one member of the household that cared nothing for him—however, Mariel was not above putting him to good use.

Without a word, she sprang to her feet and snatched the fat, orange cat from the nest he had created within her bed coverings. With a screech of protest he was suddenly airborne in the direction of Mariel’s would-be assailant, his claws fully extended in a futile attempt at air-braking.

When the two met, it was the nocturnal visitor’s turn to vocalize, as he screamed like a woman in labor, whether from pain or terror, Mariel could not know. From above there was a great concussion as her mother’s considerable bulk was set suddenly in motion.

Mariel, consigning Sailor to whatever fate awaited him, flew for the door once more, slamming it behind her and latching it all in one movement. A tight smile appeared on her chubby face as she raced for the back door, even as her name was loudly heralded with her mother’s rumbling approach.

Tripping over the uneven doorsill, she spilled clumsily into the silvered yard just in time to see the intruder fling himself from the ladder and begin his headlong flight. She had not been fast enough! Her disappointment rose like bile in her mouth. But even as her mother blocked the moon from view and began to scrabble at Mariel with sweaty, fleshy hands, she noted with some vindication that her enemy had fled in the direction of the cul-de-sac.



The Sheriff’s K-9 unit tracked the burglar unerringly from Mariel’s window to Mister Salter’s back yard, the scent leading them directly into Bruiser’s territory. There, the sleepy, overfed dog, alarmed by the night’s doings, and mysteriously free of confinement, managed to engage the interlopers in a snarling, slobbering, snapping exchange of canine unpleasantness. In the end, he was re-incarcerated, but not before thoroughly spoiling the search. Mariel knew all of this from eavesdropping as the officers briefed her mother in the living room.

When the policemen asked Mariel if she had gotten a good look at the man that had made his way into her room, she studied the dirty knees of her pajamas for several moments as if thinking very carefully, then mumbled, “I think it was Mister Salter.” Though she had never really gotten a good look at her assailant, Salter appealed to both her logic and sense of justice based on both the dogs’ tracking and the fact that she liked him the least of anyone in the neighborhood. The officers glanced meaningfully at one another after her pronouncement, then departed to invite Mariel’s neighbor to accompany them to the station for further questioning.

After they had left, Mariel had a very difficult time falling to sleep—it had been a very exciting evening. When, at last, she did drift off, it was with the pleasant sense of a job-well-done, mission accomplished.



As the following day was Sunday and Mariel’s night had been a long one, her mother allowed her to sleep in well past noon. When she did awake it was with a ravenous appetite and an equally fierce curiosity about the results of her efforts on the neighborhood-at-large. It seemed to her that an act of such magnitude would result in seismic changes on Crumpler Lane. So after two heaping bowls of frosted cereal and a glass of chocolate milk, she mounted up and set off to reconnoiter her domain.

The day was bright and fine, but as it was mid-autumn, the sun remained low in the sky and a distinct chill could be felt through her inadequate windbreaker. Racing down the lane, she swerved to drive through all leaf piles that awaited pick-up, scattering the labor of her adult neighbors with her willful passage. When she arrived at the Salter household she did it twice, and then rolled to a halt one house away to watch for any outrage.

None was forthcoming. The house remained closed and silent. There were no cars in the driveway either, and Mariel imagined Mister Salter’s wife and teenage daughters down at the police station weeping and pleading for his freedom. She felt confident that the cops would pay them no heed and might even arrest them as well because they were related to him. She smiled at this thought, though she had hoped to be the unmoving object of their pleas herself.

Mariel heard a stealthy footfall behind her and, without sparing a look, began to pedal quickly away.

“Mariel,” A voice called to her softly…urgently.

After placing a safe distance betwixt herself and the voice, she spun around to see who had called out to her. It was Mister Forster.

He stood uncertainly by his mailbox, which was entwined in ivy. He smiled weakly at her and said, “I was trying not to startle you…sorry.”

Through the near-skeletal trees behind him the cold disk of the sun peeked through. Mariel waited.

He nodded his neat head at the Salter home. “What a ruckus last night, huh…police and everything…goodness, I didn’t know what was going on around here.”

Forster stopped awkwardly. Mariel watched his face and noticed that he had whiskers today.

“Scared the hens nearly to death, I can tell you that! They don’t like a lot of commotion. Of course, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.” He glanced slyly at the Salter residence, then asked, “What did happen last night? I figured if anyone knows what went on it would be you. You’re our neighborhood policeman…er, woman, that is.”

Mariel felt her chest expand with pride. “Come on,” he waved her forward, “we can feed the hens while you tell me all about it.”

Forster turned and began to walk back up his drive without a backward glance and Mariel followed. When they reached the back yard he took up a pan of feed and handed it to her and she began to scatter it for the hens. Within moments they were busily scratching away at the soil around her feet.

“So what did happen, Mariel?” Forster asked after a period of contented quiet.

Mariel felt herself beginning to smile and tried to suppress it. “Mister Salter came in my room,” she managed by way of explanation, while gauging her chances of seizing one of the glossy black hens.

“He did?” Forster gasped. “Why on earth would he do that?”

Mariel’s small lips twisted uncomfortably. “Don’t know,” she said at last.

“Hmmm,” Forster hummed, then added, “Maybe he was trying to steal something…what do you think?”

Mariel shrugged and said nothing. The pale sun, sinking ever lower, cast lengthening shadows across the wooded back yard.

Forster leaned toward Mariel and asked in a confidential tone, “You haven’t told anybody about that necklace, have you?”

Mariel’s small, pale eyes flashed up and back down again, then she shook her head causing her curls to bounce in agreement.

“Good,” Forster assured her. “That’s very good…not even your mom, though?”

Again she shook her head.

“How about some hot cocoa, what do you say? It’s getting chilly out here and the hens will be alright for a while.” Again he turned and walked away from Mariel without looking back. At the top of the steps he held the door open for her and patted her on the shoulder reassuringly as she passed within. Mariel felt his fingers run over the necklace beneath her pullover as the slightest pressure—a fly walking across her neck.

He crossed to the stove where a kettle was already pumping steam into the fussy, over-heated room. “Lot’s of sugar?” he inquired brightly.

Mariel nodded enthusiastically even as small beads of sweat formed along her hairline—the heat was a palpable force. There was also a peculiar, not altogether pleasant, smell in the house.

“Sit…sit,” he waved at the round table that was placed within the arch of the bow window. Between the gingham curtains Mariel could see the back yard with its chicken coop and the darkening woods beyond. Ripper flashed through her memory and then was gone.

“It’s for the birds,” Forster called to her as he spooned cocoa mix into a mug and poured the hot water. “They can’t take the cold, you know…the songbirds. Most of them are from South America.” He swept an arm toward the ceiling of the room and Mariel saw them for the first time: dozens of cages mounted at various levels within the kitchen and continuing on into the rest of the house. Forster whipped off the parka he had been wearing and slung it onto a nearby chair. He wore a tee-shirt beneath as mute testament to the hot-house atmosphere of his home.

“They’re always quiet when a stranger comes in…but they come around when they get used to you.”

As if on cue, first one, then another, began to sing and the house soon filled with their tropical chorus. Mariel thought she had never heard anything so beautiful and rose as if on strings. She gripped the cage nearest her and peered in at the tiny, vibrant creature. The colors of its plumage, brilliant blues and reds, shimmered with the rise and fall of its delicate breast. Forster was still busy making the hot chocolate, taking far more time at it than her mother ever had, and Mariel lifted the little latch to its cage to reach in and…

“Don’t!” Forster screamed, spilling some of the cocoa from the mug he had in his hand. “Don’t touch them, Mariel!” The birds, all of them, went instantly silent.

Mariel started and drew her hand back but not out. It was not her nature to surrender the initiative without good cause. The tiny bird regarded her sticky, chubby fingers without alarm.

“They’re very delicate,” he added, while looking for an uncluttered surface to set the mug down on, then added under his breath, “Not that you would know anything about that, you little Neanderthal.”

Mariel didn’t know anything about that, nor did she know the meaning of the strange word he had used, but she did know when she was disapproved of, this was something of which she was keenly aware. But of far more importance, she recognized Sailor’s handiwork from the night before.

Forster caught her gaze and looked down at the long, festering scratches that ran down his arms, then back up at Mariel. “I despise cats,” he hissed very much like one. His pupils shrank to tiny dots as his neck tendons distended. “I just wanted the necklace, Mariel…that’s all. I have my reasons, as I’m sure you know.”

Mariel said nothing and the room filled with a thick, clotting silence.

Forster nodded, as his face rearranged itself into something less savage. “If you give it to me now, we can still be friends,” he promised quietly, “you can still have your cocoa. It’s just that the necklace is important, it might be recognized if you wear it around. It’s not really worth anything otherwise…it’s cheap, paste jewelry…something a whore would wear—something a whore did wear.” He set the mug carefully down and took a sudden step across the slight distance that separated man and child.

“You killed Ripper,” Mariel pronounced clearly, seizing the songbird with surprising rapidity.

Forster froze in mid-step. “Don’t,” he gasped, even as he watched the bird’s tiny, futile struggles within Mariel’s pudgy grip. “Please…don’t.”

Mariel withdrew her fist with the bird firmly in her control. Backing up to the door, her sweaty free hand groped for the handle while Forster watched her every movement, his eyes sliding back and forth as the heat-swollen door resisted her efforts.

As she turned slightly to gain more leverage, he eased a step closer, taking advantage of Mariel’s distraction, his long fingers reaching out for her nest of curls.

Mariel’s fist shot up, the tiny head of her captive swiveling this and way and that in its panic, it’s black, shiny eyes blinking and blinking.

“Okay,” Forster halted once more, his hands coming up palms outward, “okay, please…please, don’t hurt him, Mariel…please.”

At last, she succeeded in throwing open the door to the outside world letting a cold wind rush through the stifling kitchen.

“Maybe,” she answered enigmatically backing out onto the porch, her eyes never leaving his as she pulled the door slowly closed behind her. The latch snapped into place like a hammer blow in the now-silent room. From the porch Forster heard a muffled giggle and the sound of clumsy footsteps.

He took a long step, then had to grasp the edge of the table to keep from falling, his legs grown too weak to support him. He slumped down onto the nearest chair. After several moments there came the ratcheting of a bike bell. “Oh God,” he moaned into his hands, “Oh God, what am I going to do?”

Finally, as his breathing quieted, he looked up and around him as if just awakening. Lifting the mug he had prepared for Mariel, he drank its contents down in one scalding gulp, then walked from room to room turning on every light. All around him the air began to fill with the song of a new and sudden day.

Returning to the kitchen he resumed his seat at the cluttered table, and after a while, sagged tiredly forward, laying his head to rest on the place mat. As his eyelids began to flutter his breathing grew very rapid and he began to pant like a dog, perhaps like Mariel’s dog, he thought. Then, suddenly, it slowed once more to become reedy and shallow. Trying to lift a hand to reach out for the empty bird cage, he smiled and muttered, “The speech of angels…the language of God.”
From other rooms his choir sang on.



Though Mariel had been successful in keeping the necklace a secret, the song bird proved another matter altogether. Between its near continuous song celebrating the unfettered freedom of Mariel’s bedroom, and Sailor’s constant yowling and scratching at her closed door, the secret was soon out. The following morning Mariel’s mother discovered the colorful little creature flitting happily about Mariel’s room, leaving its droppings wherever they happened to land. Neither she nor Sailor was amused.

Remaining mute in the face of interrogation as she always did served no purpose in the end, for her mother had heard from other mothers on the street about Mr. Forster’s fussy relationship with birds. An unsettling suspicion began to dawn on her.

Snagging the contested bird within the worn fish net from an old forgotten aquarium, she confined it within a perforated bait can left behind by her ex and set off down the street. Mariel followed on her purple bike at a distance, silent, resentful, and slightly fearful, but curious for all that.

When Forster failed to answer her repeated knocks, Mariel’s mom marched her formidable bulk to the rear of the house where she found his hens scattered about the yard and far into the woods. Upon seeing her they stormed forth with hungry shrieks. Ignoring them she mounted the rear steps, grunting with each, to peer in through the glass of the back door. Forster sat slumped at his table and would not respond to her repeated poundings. An empty mug with a teddy bear painted on it rested next to an outstretched hand. As keen as her daughter, the long scratches that festooned his bare arms did not go unnoticed.

Turning with a gasp, she swept back down the steps, through the now-fleeing hens, and back up the street to her home, carrying Mariel in her wake by force of will and dire threats. The police responded within minutes of her call.



Mister Salter was released from custody with a muted apology from the police, even as Forster was bundled away for autopsy. It appeared Mariel had misidentified her assailant in the darkness, a common enough mistake even for an adult. For his part, Salter threatened lawsuits all round.

As to Forster’s motive for breaking into Mariel’s bedroom, the general consensus was the obvious one. But as he was dead, the matter was laid to rest with his body.

Mariel, as a reward for her brave defense of herself, was allowed to keep the bird, and though it was not a dog, she was very satisfied with the exchange. As for the necklace, she continued to keep it a secret from her mother and wore it only when out of the house. Ripper, forgotten in all the excitement, remained in his shared and secret grave, an arrangement that also suited Mariel, as she had no wish for her possession of the necklace to be challenged in any way.

The End

14 April 2015

Mariel– The Story, Part I


by David Dean

Some time ago I did a piece here on the writing of my story, "Mariel", which appeared in the Dec. 2012 issue of ELLERY QUEEN MYSTERY MAGAZINE. Finding myself overcome by events and coming up dry on the deadline for this month's entry in the SleuthSayers sweepstakes, I decided to make the story available (in two parts due to its length) to anyone who wants to read it. I hope that you will, if you haven't already, and that you enjoy meeting it's young heroine.

Mariel

THE NEIGHBOR watched Mariel approach through his partially shuttered blinds. She cruised down their quiet cul-de-sac on her purple bicycle, her large head with its jumble of tight curls swiveling from side to side. He thought she looked grotesque, a Shirley Temple on steroids. Mariel ratcheted the bell affixed to her handlebars for no apparent reason and stopped in front of his house. He took a step back from the window.

His house was one of three that lay along the turn-around at the end of Crumpler Lane and normally she would simply complete her circumnavigation of the asphalted circle and return to her end of the street. This time, however, Mariel’s piggish eyes swept across his lawn and continued to the space between his house and that of his neighbor’s to the north, who despised the child as much as he did, if that was possible. A crease of concern appeared on his freckled forehead and he took a sip of his cooling coffee.

Suddenly she raked the lever of her bell back and forth several times startling him, the nerve-wracking jangle sounding as if Mariel and her bike were in his living room. He felt something warm slide over his knuckles and drip onto his faux Persian carpet.

Hissing a curse about Mariel’s parentage, he turned for the kitchen and a bottle of stain remover. “Hideous child,” he murmured through clenched teeth, “Troglodyte!” What was she looking for? More than once he had chased her from his property after he had found her snooping around his sheds and peering in his windows. Though he had complained, her mother had proved useless in controlling the child. She was one of those ‘single moms’ that seemed to dominate the family landscape of late, and had made it clear that she thought he was overreacting.

He recalled with a flushing of his freshly razored cheeks, how she had appeared amused by the whole thing and inquired with an arched brow how long he had been divorced—as if the need for companionship might be the real motive behind his visit! He felt certain that on more than one encounter with the gargantuan and supremely disengaged mother, that he had smelled alcohol on her breath, cheap wine, if he had to hazard a guess.

But what now, he wondered? Usually, Mariel crept about in a surprisingly stealthy manner for such a large girl, but now she commanded the street like a general, silent but for the grating bell that even now rang out demandingly once more…but for what?

Forgetting the carpet cleaner, he set down his morning mug and glided stealthily back to his observation point at the window. He felt trapped, somehow, by this sly little giant so inappropriately named ‘Mariel’. What had her mother been thinking, he asked himself with a shake of his graying head, to assign this clumsy-looking creature such a delicate, feminine name? When he peeked out again it was to find Mariel’s bike lying discarded on his lawn, the girl nowhere to be seen. The crease between his eyes became a furrow and he rushed through his silent house to the kitchen windows.

Carefully parting a slat of his Venetian blinds, he looked on the path that led between his property and the next and on into the woods, a large head of curly hair was just disappearing down it and into the trees. A shudder ran through his body and beads of sweat formed above his upper lip like dew. ‘Damn the girl,’ he thought, feeling slightly nauseous as suspicion uncoiled itself within his now-queasy guts.

Unbidden, the image of the dog trotted into his mind, its hideous prize clasped between its slavering jaws. It had reeked of the rancid earth exposed by the recent torrential rains. He remembered with a shudder of distaste and a rising, renewable fury how it had danced back and forth across his sodden lawn, clearly enjoying its game of ‘keep away’. He remembered the shovel most of all, its heft and reach, the satisfaction of its use.

“That was her dog,” he breathed into the silent, waiting room, then thought, ‘Of course it was…it would be.’ His soft hands flexed as if gripping the shovel once more.



Mariel stood over the shallow, hastily dug grave and contemplated the partially exposed paw. The limb showed cinnamon-colored fur with black, tigerish stripes that she immediately recognized. She hadn’t really cared for Ripper, (a name he had been awarded as a puppy denoting his penchant for ripping any and every thing he could seize between his formidable jaws) but he had been, ostensibly, her dog.

Ostensibly, because as he had grown larger, his destructive capabilities, coupled with Mariel and her mother’s complete disregard of attempting to instill anything remotely resembling discipline, had resulted in a rather dangerous beast that had to be kept penned in the back yard at all times. Mariel had served largely as Ripper’s jailer.

As she couldn’t really share any affection with the dog, or he with her, they had gradually grown to regard one another with a resigned antipathy, if not outright hostility—after all, she was also the provider of his daily meals which she mostly remembered to deliver. It was also she that managed to locate him on those occasions when he found the gate to his pen unlatched (Mariel did this from time to time to see what might happen in the neighborhood as a result) and coaxed him into returning. This was the mission in which Mariel had been engaged this Saturday morning in early November. She saw now that she had been only partially successful, Ripper would not be retuning to his pen.

Looking about for something to scrape the loose earth off her dog’s remains, she pried a rotting piece of wood from a long-fallen pine tree and began to dig into the damp, sandy soil. Grunting and sweating with the effort, her Medusa-like curls bouncing on her large, round skull, Ripper was exposed within minutes. Whoever had buried him had not done a very good job of it and the slight stench of dead dog that had first led her to the secret grave rose like an accusing, invisible wraith. Mariel wrinkled her stubby nose.

Ignoring the dirt and damage being done her purplish sweat shirt and pants that matched her bicycle, she seized the dead creature by his hindquarters and dragged him free of the grave. Letting him drop onto the leaf litter of the forest floor with a sad thump she surveyed her once-fierce companion.

She thought that he looked as if the air had been let out of him—deflated. His great fangs were exposed in a permanent snarl or grimace, the teeth and eyes clotted with earth. She pushed at his ribcage with a toe of her dirty sneaker as if this might goad him back into action, but nothing happened, he just lay there.

She thought his skull appeared changed and squatted next to him to make a closer examination. As she brought her large face closer, the rancid odor grew stronger yet, but Mariel was not squeamish and so continued her careful scrutiny. It was different, she decided. The concavity that naturally ran between Ripper’s eyes to the crown of his skull was now more of a valley, or canyon. Mariel ran a finger along it and came away with a sticky black substance clinging to it. The stain smelled of death and iron.

Having completed her necropsy, Mariel stood once more and surveyed the surrounding woods. The trees had been largely stripped of their colorful foliage by the recent nor’easter, but her enemy was not to be seen. Though she did not truly mourn Ripper’s untimely passing, she did greatly resent the theft of her property and its misuse, and concluded with a hot finality that someone owed her a dog.

She gently kicked Ripper’s poor carcass as a final farewell then turned to leave and find a wheel barrow in which to transport him home once more. She knew of several neighbors who possessed such a conveyance and almost none were locked away this time of year.

It was then that something within the dog’s recent grave caught her attention—something that twinkled like a cat’s eye in the slanted beams of daylight that filtered through the trees. Mariel dropped to her knees, thrusting her chubby hand into the fetid earth to retrieve whatever treasure lay within. When she withdrew it once more it was to find that she clasped a prize far greater than any she could ever have imagined—a gold necklace, it’s flattened, supple links glistening like snake skin and bearing a pendant that sparkled with a blue fire in the rays of the milky sun. Mariel had no idea as to what, exactly, she had discovered, but her forager’s instinct assured her that she clasped a prize worth having.

Without hesitation, she gave it a tug to free it from the grasp of Ripper’s grave, but oddly, found that her efforts were resisted. She snatched at it once more, impatient to be in full possession of her prize, and felt something beneath the dirt move and begin to give way. Encouraged at the results of this tug-o-war, she seized the links in both hands now and rocked back on her considerable haunches for additional leverage.

With the dry snap of a breaking branch, the necklace came free and Mariel found herself in full possession. The erupted earth, however, now revealed a yellowish set of teeth still lodged in the lower jawbone of their owner. Several of these teeth had been filled with silver and as Mariel had also been the recipient of such dental work, she understood that the remains were those of a human. A stack of vertebrae were visible jutting out from the dirt, evidence of the result of the uneven struggle, though the remainder of the skull still lay secure beneath the soil.

Mariel’s grip on the pendant never wavered as she regarded the neck of the now-headless horror that had previously worn the coveted necklace. With only a slight “Ewww,” of disgust, she rose in triumph to slip the prized chain over her own large head, admiring the lustrous sapphire that hung almost to her exposed navel while ignoring the slight tang of death that clung to it. She felt well-pleased with the day’s outcome, Ripper’s demise notwithstanding.

With her plans now altered by this surprising acquisition, Mariel dragged her dog’s much abused corpus back to the grave from which she had only just liberated him, tipped him in and began to cover Ripper and his companion once more. When she was done, she studied the results for several moments; then thought to drag a few fallen branches over her handiwork.

Satisfied with the results, she turned for home once more, pausing only long enough to slip the necklace beneath her stained sweat shirt. Mariel did not want to have to surrender her hard-won treasure to her mother, who would undoubtedly covet the prize and seize it for her own adornment. Besides, she had things she wanted to think about and did not want anyone to know of the necklace until the moment of her choosing, specially, the three men who occupied the homes on the cul-de-sac. It had not escaped Mariel’s notice that only those three had easy access to the path that led into the woods and passed within yards of the secret grave.



The neighbor watched her emerge from the trees and march past his house. He studied her closely but could read nothing from her usual closed expression. Other than her clothes being a little dirtier than when she went in she appeared the same as always and he breathed a sigh of relief.

It was silly, he thought as he saw her raise and clumsily mount her bike, how one unpleasant child could instill so much unease. It was because he was a sensitive man, he consoled himself—he had been a sensitive boy and with adulthood nothing had really changed. He had always resented the unfeeling bullies of the world, child or adult. Children like Mariel had terrified him when he had been a school boy and apparently nothing had changed in that respect either.

The sudden jangling of the bell caused him to gasp and his eyes returned to the robust figure of Mariel. She surveyed the surrounding houses with her implacable gaze, studying each of the three on the cul-de-sac in turn, coming at last back to his own. He shrank back from the window once more, his heart beating rapidly.

Then, with a thrust of a large thigh, her bike was set in motion and she pedaled from his sight with powerful strokes. “Damn her”, he whispered defiantly as his earlier concerns returned with such force that his blood suddenly roared within his ears.

Finding an overstuffed chair to settle into, he peered around the plush, dim room with its collection of his own paintings on the wall, while around him song birds began to chirp and sing from their cages as if to restore and calm him. He smiled weakly in gratitude at their effort even as Mariel’s imperious face returned to his mind’s eye with a terrible clarity. He closed his eyes against her, massaging his now-throbbing temples with his soft fingertips. If she had discovered anything in those woods, he asked himself, she would have come out screaming, wouldn’t she? He lowered his head into his sweaty hands, while a blood-red image of Mariel shimmered on his inner eyelids …wouldn’t she?



Mariel had no trouble engineering her encounter with Mister Salter. He worked on his lawn from early spring until the cold and snow of January finally drove him indoors. As long as there was any light she knew that her chances were good of finding him in his yard. So after she was delivered home by her school bus and enjoyed a snack of cream-filled cupcakes she pedaled her bike directly to the cul-de-sac and his property.

Salter watched her approach with a sour expression meant to ward her away, but Mariel was not troubled by such subtleties. She came to a sudden halt in his driveway causing a scattering of carefully raked gravel. She watched Salter’s expression darken at this, but he refrained from saying anything. He shut off the leaf blower he had been using and its piercing whine faded away. Man and girl observed each other from several yards apart as his corpulent Labrador waddled happily toward Mariel, thick tail wagging.

“Bruiser,” Salter warned menacingly.

The dog ignored him and continued on to Mariel, pleased to be patted on his large head. Salter’s complexion went darker yet.

“Can I do something for you?” he asked, his tone clearly inferring the opposite.

Mariel regarded him without answering, while fingering the necklace she had retrieved from its hiding place before going out. Salter fidgeted beneath her round-eyed stare. “Be careful of the dog,” he muttered hopefully, “he might bite.”

As Mariel had surreptitiously recruited Salter’s dog during her many secret forays, she knew this to be untrue. She often went into Salter’s garage where he kept the dog food and fed the animal while he was away teaching shop at the high school, Bruiser was always pleased to see her as a result. As if to emphasize their relationship, the dog laid its great head on her thigh, sighed, and stared adoringly into her eyes.

This was too much for Salter, who turned his wide back on her and went to pull at the cord that would start his treasured leaf-blower.

Mariel glanced at the well-worn path that led from Salter’s back yard and into the woods. “I have this,” she said, pulling the necklace from her shirt and allowing it to fall down over her plump stomach. The sapphire shone in the late day sun like a blue flame. Her eyes remained warily on Salter, even as her small mouth puckered into a smile of possessiveness.

Salter, glancing over his shoulder, halted, and turned slowly back. “Where the devil did you get that?” he managed. He took a few steps closer as Mariel backed her bike away an equal distance. Bruiser’s head slid off her thigh leaving a trail of saliva.

Seeing this, Salter stopped and studied Mariel’s prize from where he stood. “Did your mother say you could wear that?” he asked.

As the girl did not reply, but only continued her unsettling scrutiny, he added, “Does she even know that you have it? For that matter, how the hell could your mom afford something like that…provided its real, of course?” Forgetting himself, he took another few steps, but Mariel was already turning her bike to coast down his driveway.

“I know that you’ve been coming onto my property,” he called to her as she picked up speed with each stroke of her powerful legs. “You’d better stop sneaking around here…it’s called trespassing you know, I could call the cops.” His voice grew louder as she added distance between them. “And maybe I will the next time,” he offered.

“Did you steal that?” he called out meanly as she disappeared around the curve.

Mariel only looked back as she sped up the street and out of sight of the cu-de-sac. A small smile played on her puckered lips. She scratched Mr. Salter off her list of suspects.



Mariel surprised Mister Forster in his own back yard. She had glided silently across his still-green lawn to roll to a halt at the back edge of his house. Forster had his back to her and was busily feeding and talking to his flock of tiny bantam hens. He did not notice her arrival. The hens themselves restlessly pecked and grumbled within the pen he had provided them and gave her no notice as Forster continued to scatter feed amongst them.

Mariel enjoyed watching these birds, and had several times in the past attempted to better make their acquaintance. On one such occasion, Forster had found Mariel within the pen itself attempting to catch one of his miniature chickens, feathers flying about in the air amid a cacophony of terrified squawking. He had been livid with rage at her incursion and had joined the ranks of other neighbors who had visited her home to complain to her mother. Mariel had learned to be more careful since that encounter and had not been caught since, but neither had she been successful.

“They’re funny,” Mariel lisped quietly.

Forster spun around scattering the remainder of the feed from the bowl he was using. “Oh,” he cried, as the small, black fowl swarmed his shoes and cuffs for the errant seeds. “Oh,” he repeated; then focused on his unexpected visitor. He brought a hand up to his heart and gasped, “You scared me half to death, Mariel. I didn’t hear you come up and you nearly scared me half to…” he caught himself. “You usually ring that little bell of yours,” he finished with a limp gesture at her bike.

Man and girl regarded one another across several yards of mostly grassless, churned-up soil…evidence of poultry. A worn path into the woods separated them. Mr. Forster set the metal bowl down and opened the pen door to come out. Mariel clumsily rolled her bike into a half-circle that left her facing in the direction from which she had come.

The older man appeared to note the child’s wariness and slowed his steps, easing himself leisurely through the door and taking his time in carefully closing and latching the wire-covered frame. When he turned once more to Mariel it was to find her holding out a large jewel pendant that hung about her neck from a gold-colored chain. She reminded him of the vampire-slayers in horror films attempting to paralyze and kill their undead foes with a crucifix.

“My goodness, Mariel that is some necklace you have there. It’s lovely. You are a very lucky girl to have that.”

Mariel continued to fix him with both her gaze and the pendant while her lips vanished into a grim, pensive line. Forster stared back uncertainly. “Was there something that you wanted?” he thought to ask at last.

The sapphire wavered in her grip and she slowly lowered and slipped it once more beneath her top. It appeared to have no power over this man either. As she puzzled over her lack of progress in her investigations thus far, Forster took two steps closer.

Forster was only slightly taller than Mariel and had no more than fifteen pounds over the ten-year-old, so she was not as intimidated as she might have been with other men in the neighborhood.

“It’s the hens, isn’t it?” he ventured. “You appreciate them like I do.” He glanced back over his shoulder at the chicken coop. “I was probably a little hasty last time you were here,” he continued. “I should have thought…but when I heard all that commotion and came out to find someone in the pen…Well, I should have realized that you were just as fascinated by them as I am.” He studied Mariel’s broad, unintelligent face for several moments. “Would you like to hold one?”

Mariel’s gaze flickered just slightly at this invitation. The thought of actually holding one of the softly feathered birds had become something of a Holy Grail for her and her breath caught at the idea.

Forster turned and retraced his steps to the coop and within moments returned stroking a quietly clucking hen. Mariel smiled and reached out both arms for the coveted bird, but Forster stopped a few paces short of her. Still running his hand over the bantam’s glossy feathers, he nodded contentedly at Mariel, and said, “Show me that necklace again, why don’t you? I was too far away to be able to see it well. How about another look…I won’t touch it; then I’ll let you hold Becky.” He smiled widely at Mariel and held the bird a few inches away from his chest to indicate his willingness.

Mariel quickly retrieved the necklace from within her shirt and held out the pendant for him to study, her small greedy eyes never leaving the near-dozing hen. Forster leaned forward onto the balls of his feet and studied the stone silently for several moments. Finally, Mariel heard him exhale and murmur, “You should be very careful with that, Mariel. That’s exactly the kind of thing that grown-ups will want to take from you.” He leaned just a little closer and asked, “Does your mother know you’ve got that?” And when she fidgeted and didn’t answer right away, added, “I wouldn’t tell her, if I were you…she’ll want to wear it…and keep it…for sure. Any woman would.”

Mariel stuffed the necklace back down her shirt and thrust her arms out once more for the agreed-upon chicken. Forster carefully placed it within her thick arms and smiled as Mariel’s normally glum face began to light up with the tactile pleasure of the silken bird. In her enthusiasm, she began to run her sticky hand down the hen’s back with rapid movements, even as ‘Becky’ began to squirm and protest volubly at the excessive downward pressure of her strokes. The contented clucking quickly became the frenzied cackles of a terrified chicken in the clutch of a bear cub.

Forster, seeing that Mariel’s technique required more practice and refinement, made to take the bird from the grinning school girl, but she turned away with her prize as if she meant to keep Becky at all costs. With that movement, however, the hen was given just the opening she required in which to free her wings. Becky began to flap them frantically in her rapidly escalating desire for freedom.

Startled, Mariel released the bird, which in a whirlwind of beating wings and flying feathers covered the short distance to her coop in awkward bounds only slightly resembling actual flight. Mariel was left with nothing but a few of the errant feathers and her hot disappointment.

With a frown of both disapproval and resentment, she pushed off on her bike and made for Crumpler Lane. Behind her, Forster called out, “They just take a little getting used to, Mariel. Come back when you want and I’ll teach you to handle them!”

After she had gone away, he turned to his precious coop to insure that Becky was returned and properly locked in for the night. Then, with a sigh, went up the back steps and into his house, turning on the lights in room after room as true darkness fell.



Mister Wanderlei was next on Mariel’s’ list and she was not long in cornering him. She found him that very Saturday as he was painting the wooden railing of his front porch.

Stopping at his mail box, she gave her bike bell several sharp rings to gain his attention. He glanced over his shoulder and smiled at her.

“Hello, Mariel,” he called, while lifting a paint brush in salute. “Another few weeks and it will be too cold to do this.”

Mariel could think of nothing to reply and so rung her bell once more. Mister Wanderlei set the brush carefully on the lip of the can and stood, wiping his hands on the old corduroy pants that he was wearing. “Is that a new bike?” he asked amiably.

Mariel nodded her big head at this, then thought to add, “My Grandma bought it for me…I didn’t steal it.”

Wanderlei smiled and answered, “I never would have thought so.” He ambled down the steps in her direction.

Mariel fumbled with the necklace and only just managed it bring it out from beneath her top as he drew near. This caused Wanderlei to halt for a moment as he took in Mariel’s rather astounding adornment.

“Goodness,” he breathed at last. “That’s some necklace for a little girl. Where did you get that?” He ran a large knuckled hand across the top of his mostly hairless skull.

As she had done with Salter and Forster, Mariel realigned her bicycle for a quick escape should it prove advisable, one foot poised on a pedal. She remained silent.

Wanderlei fished a handkerchief from his pocket and set about wiping his face and near-naked pate. “Such things cause great temptation,” he said finally. “Of course, I know that you’re too young to understand what I mean exactly.” He glanced up and down the street; then turned his gaze onto her once more.

“Where I work, there are men who have killed for such baubles.” A slight frown crossed his face. “Do you know where I work, Mariel?”

In fact, Mariel did know, as one of her uncles had pointed him out to her during a visit between incarcerations. She nodded slightly.

Wanderlei studied her face with interest, then said, “Well, then you know that I’ve spent my life amongst a lot of very bad people.” His eyes had taken on a sparkle that was beginning to make Mariel uneasy. He took another step and she eased her rump upwards in preparation for escape.

“Are you Christian?” he asked gently. “Does your mother ever take you to church?”

Mariel frowned, unable to follow Mr. Wanderlei’s drift. Even so, she nodded involuntarily out of nervousness.

“Is that right?” he smiled, completely ignoring her necklace. “Really, what church would that be?”

“We go sometimes,” Mariel whispered, for some reason not wanting to lie outright to this man. “We’re Cat’lics.”

Wanderlei’s expression became one of disappointment. “Oh, I see,” he murmured. “That would explain the love of gold and baubles,” he said quietly, as if Mariel were no longer there.

Mariel rose up and pushed down on the waiting pedal, she had learned what she needed to know here.

Wanderlei looked up as she pulled away, his expression gone a little wistful now. “You and your mother are welcome to attend the services here at our house anytime that you want,” he called after her. “God accepts anyone that has an open heart. Do you have an open heart, Mariel?”



To be continued… Part II