Dog Town

DOG TOWN

Fort Collins is a dog town. It has great, fenced-in dog parks. People take their dogs everywhere, especially to open-air music venues, like Odells or Maxline Brewing. We were at Maxline yesterday to see Drifting West, sharing the patio with several dogs, many of whom arrived in bike trailers. The folks wheel in trailing a toddler carriage in which sits a grinning kyoodle. We always have three dogs, young, middle, and old, so that when the old one dies, we have two more to tide us over until we get a new one.

Bohemian Nights, a three day music festival that was shut down by the virus two years ago, had almost as many dogs as people. I wouldn’t subject my dogs to one hundred and twenty decibel rock performances, but perhaps the dogs enjoy it.

Right now, Freddy is the new dog, a tan mutt fro the Four Corners region. Freddy is a great dog. Then comes Bob, who looks like the ancient Egyptian god Anubis, whom we got from another animal rescue outfit. At the top of the totem pole sits Mack, a once ferocious Boston Terrier/pug mix we got from a veterinarian friend. Mack has mellowed. She loves to lick. Every day we go to the dog park. In a few minutes, the dogs will gather around, wagging their tail, pawing me, and barking, demanding to go to the dog park.

My sister Jill has always had two Labradors, always gets them from the animal shelter, and takes them everywhere. Since Sis works in Rocky Mountain National Park, those dogs have seen more of the great outdoors than most people. A couple years ago, when her set of Labs was getting old, they took them on a road trip to several national parks including Yellowstone and Crater.

Thirty years ago, I had a big black mutt named Lucy. Lucy grabbed big air when I tossed the Frisbee. I thought about entering Lucy in competition, but that requires a small dog you can catch on the fly, not a seventy-pounder. I wrote a novel about disc dogs. It’s called Disco. It’s out of print, but a handful of copies remain (https://www.amazon.com/Disco-Novel-Mike-Baron/dp/1947942905/ref=sr_1_2?dchild=1&keywords=disco+mike+baron&qid=1621861810&sr=8-2)

When we moved to Fort Collins, I would put on a pair of sunglasses, carry a cane, and got Lucy a harness so I could take her into restaurants. That didn’t last long. I tried to order her a beer and the bartender demanded to see ID.

Sherlock Holmes

SHERLOCK HOLMES

Been on a Holmes kick. I’d watched a few episodes of the BBC Benedict Cumberbatch Holmes years ago, and liked it, but didn’t grasp its significance. This all started with me trying to buy a copy of the Hammer production of The Hound of the Baskervilles starring Peter Cushing as Holmes, and Christopher Lee as Henry Baskerville. They sent me one of those weird “Zone X” DVDs that won’t play on Western DVD players. I don’t know why they exist. It’s like selling vinyl LPs that won’t play on Western turntables. John Grace cued me in to a workable copy which I ordered. The disc itself was fine but the plastic package was shattered. I put it in a new box.

This Hammer production is long on atmosphere and Cushing makes a superb Holmes, though not always, as we shall see. Lurid lighting, sexual undertones, and that strict class system that marks most Hammer horrors. Class is front and center in all the Holmes movies. The clients live in twenty thousand square foot homes. The underlings bow, scrape, and tip their hats. “Yes, m’lord. No, m’lady.”

Hound is not a great movie. When the hound finally appears, it’s a mastiff in a mask.

I watched the BBC Holmes (Cumberbatch) from the beginning. It’s great. Cumberbatch nails Holmes’ personality in a way no other actor has. He claims to be a high-functioning sociopath, but he behaves as if he has Asperger’s Syndrome. It’s funny and frequently shocking. The dialogue is complex and entertaining. Reinventing Holmes for the modern era pays big dividends. Dr. Watson (Martin Freeman) is now an Afghan veteran. The first episode involves a murder mystery. The murderer is fascinating in his motivations and modus operandi. Mrs. Hudson is the widow of a drug dealer. She drives an Aston Martin. Andrew Scott is a monstrously evil Moriarty. While the plotting is sometimes baroque, it works until the fourth and final season when they jump the shark with a ridiculous episode involving Mycroft’s and Sherlock’s evil sister, overwrought and unbelievable. Nevertheless, the first three seasons are superb.

Many consider Jeremy Brett the ultimate Holmes, and he most closely resembles the character Conan Doyle created.

“In the latter part of 1986, Brett exhibited wild mood swings that alarmed his family and friends, who persuaded him to seek diagnosis and treatment for manic depression, also known as

bipolar disorder. Brett was prescribed lithium tablets to fight his manic depression. He suspected that he would never be cured, and would have to live with his condition, look for the signs of his disorder, and then deal with it. He wanted to return to work, to play Holmes again.” –Wiki

Some believe that Brett believed he was Holmes, and that this accounted for his total immersion in the character. The Brett Holmes is a must see.

I looked for Holmes online. Christopher Lee is Holmes and Patrick McNee is Watson in Incident at Victoria Falls. Ho hum. Yawnsville. But always those sharp class distinctions. Peter Cushing plays Holmes again in a BBC series. “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.” A ho-hum mystery wherein the lower class villain realizes his mistake and begs for forgiveness. “I am deeply sorry!” This is the opposite of the human fiends in the Cumberbatch version.

Peter O’Toole voiced Holmes in the animated Baskerville Curse. Yawnsville.

Finally, there’s a new Holmes-related series on Netflix, The Irregulars, about the street urchins Holmes recruits. Dr. Watson is black. The Irregulars are woke. The first episode goes full Birds and grand guignol. “Her friggin’ eyes were pulled out of her face!” I wonder if the word frig was in use in 1890. One episode was enough.

The Basil Rathbone Holmes are wildly uneven, but the good ones are very good, and Rathbone made a superb Holmes.

A more thorough essay would include Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, and the superb 1966 A Study In Terror, which pits Sherlock (John Neville) against Jack the Ripper. Frank Finlay plays Inspector LeStrade.

Florida Man, Catfish Calling

BLOGUE

My third Florida Man novel, Catfish Calling, will be published on April
21. Here is a somber chapter.

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR “KRAKOW!”

Floyd called on the way home. “Sorry I missed it, man. I had an emergency job in Clewiston. Rats the size of bulldogs. I hadda club ’em to death.”

“Didja get ’em all?”

“No. I had to lay down some peppermint, castor, and citronella.”

“Yeah, we’re headin’ for the swamp. Swing on by! I’m grilling ribs.”

“Can I bring Ginger?”

“Sure. Grab some beer, willya?”
Gary and Krystal rode in the Love Bug. Delilah followed in her Jeep. As they passed the Wokenoki Trailer Park on Weldon Way, a Burmese python stretched across the narrow dirt road, both ends hidden in the brush. Gary down-shifted, coaxing the forty-year-old VW to heretofore unimagined ferocity. Krystal grabbed his arm.

“What are you doing?”

“Omma kill the sumbitch!”

“Why?”

BDOMP. The VW went airborne and came down on the left front tire. KRAKOW! The wheel collapsed into the fender. KAWHANGO. The Love Bug jittered across the road into the ditch. FWANG. The Love Bug came to rest on its side.

Gary lay there a sec, until he realized he was lying on Krystal. He raised himself up. “Krystal! Krystal baby! Are you all right?”

She opened her eyes, mouth twisted. “You fool! Why did you do that?”

“It just seemed like the right thing to do.”

“Get me out of here, you moron. Now you’ve wrecked Habib’s car.”

Delilah stopped behind them, got out, opened the door and offered Gary a hand. “Didn’t you see that python?”

“I saw it. I was gunnin’ for it. I shoulda known better than to try it in this piece of shit.”

Five Wokenoki residents wandered out clutching beers, smoking cigs. Gary waved his arm.

“We’re fine! Thank you for coming.”

A youth slow hoisted his middle finger. The crowd ambled back into the park. The VW was completely off the road, left tires in the air reminding Gary of a dead palmetto bug. Delilah lit a cigarette.

Delilah stood with hands on hips. “Broken bones?”

Krystal felt herself. Gary danced a little jig. “We’re good.”

“Get in the truck. Let’s go.”

Wokenoki disappeared behind them. The dirt road ran straight between jungle walls. A dark cylinder slithered across the road.

Gary reached over Krystal to nudge Delilah. “Look. There’s one! Gun it! Show that sumbitch whatfor!”

“You gotta be kidding me,” Delilah said. “Ain’t you learned nothin’?”

“Come on, Delilah! This here’s a goddamn Jeep! This ain’t no piece of shit tin foil hat from Germany! This baby tips the scales at two tons and has two trans axles! Are you gonna let these damned pythons push us around? These interlopers? Who invited them? Nobody! They come here to live fat at the expense of the American taxpayer. Come on, Delilah! You ain’t skeered, are ya?”

Delilah grimaced and grinned. “All right, baby. You asked for it.”

Krystal rolled her eyes and cinched her seat belt tight.

Delilah accelerated to seventy.

BDOMP. The Jeep went airborne and came down on the left front tire. KRAKOW! The wheel collapsed into the fender. KAWHANGO. The Jeep jittered across the road into the ditch. FWANG. The Jeep came to rest on its side. The airbags deployed, pushing Delilah, Krystal, and Gary back into their seats like an overbearing aunt. Gary found his pocket knife and shivved the airbags. Whoosh. The interior smelled of ozone and talcum powder.

They crawled out of the Jeep. Delilah curled her fingers. “Why? Why did you force me to do that?”

“Why?!” Krystal cried.

“Any broken bones?”

Krystal and Gary checked their limbs.

“Nah,” Gary said. “We’re good.”

Delilah went over to Krystal. “You okay?”

Krystal clutched her left shoulder. “My shoulder hurts like hell.”

“See if you can move your arm. Real gentle.”

Krystal tentatively circled her arm, grimacing at the top. “Ouch.”

“Shit,” Delilah muttered. “May have to work some juju, if you’re gonna beat Javelina.”

“What about them pythons? They count as a sacrifice?”

“Maybe.”

“Y’know,” Gary said, “would it help if we ate a javelina? I mean, wouldn’t that like give her spiritual power over her opponent?”

Delilah walked down the road. “Let’s go.”

Gary had left his trophy in the crushed bug, but the check was snug in his pocket. He’d stuck his magnum in the back of his belt. No telling what would show up next.

“These damned snakes are rankling my ass,” Gary muttered. As they neared the final corner beyond which lay his trailer, Gary felt both anxious and excited. There was no telling what lay behind the next curve. It might be feral hogs, Venezuelans, python, Godzilla, or sheriff’s deputies. Gary would have vomited had he not already given all. In fact, he was getting hungry.

“Whatchoo got for a side dish, little lady?”

Krystal trudged toward the trailer clutching her left shoulder. “I got beans and rice, but you’ll have to cook it. I’m gonna lay off this arm for a few days. Gary, I swear, if your bullshit causes me to lose this bout, I will claw your balls off.”

“Claude Balls!”

“What?”

“Remember when the Duke and Duchess came by to get their painting? It was a Claude Balls!”

“Who gives a shit.”

“Well I was just thinking, what if they left more Claude Balls behind? Prints, books, anything? That might be worth some money.”

Krystal’s lip curled like Elvis. “Claude Balls my ass. You’ve got to get the show going! That’s where the money is. You get enough followers, you can sell ads! Hell, you can do ads! You’re well known enough, some insurance company might want you!”

“You really think so?”

“‘Course I do! Aren’t you the man who just won the Hendry County Fair Mullet and Palmetto Bug Eating Contest? Your life has been an incredible adventure! In fact, I think you should write your biography.”

They approached the trailer. Gary kept an eye peeled for pythons, feral hogs and macaques. “That’s a good idea. That’s right! I’ll write my story! I’ll bet Major can sell it for big bucks.”

“Now you’re talkin’, big daddy.”

“Who do you think should play me in the movie?”

“Matthew McConaughy or James Franco.”

Delilah picked up her pace. “Is it unlocked? I need to use the bathroom.”

“Those Venezuelan sumbitches broke the lock.”

A furrow split Krystal’s perfect forehead. “What Venezuelans?”

“It’s a long story. After we found that one guy, there’s been three more.”

Delilah hot stepped into the trailer. Minutes later she popped back out. “There’s a snake in your toilet.”

Florida Man

FLORIDA MAN

I don’t choose my stories. My stories choose me. Every time I went online or looked at the news there was another bizarre headline that began, “FLORIDA MAN…” If you want to know what these headlines are, go to floridaman.com. There are too many to list. There are too many to read. It occurred to me that FLORIDA MAN was the stuff of novels, so I created Gary Duba, a roofer, a redneck living in a trailer in the swamp, easy to anger, likes to get high, likes to get stoned, always looking for the next get-rich-quick scheme, but a decent guy at heart, someone who would give you the shirt off his back. The challenge was to make Gary inappropriate, hilarious, and sympathetic. I drew on some real FM stories as well as the history of Florida. FLORIDA MAN LEADS POLICE ON 2 ½ HOUR CHASE THROUGH WALMART ATTIC is in the third novel, CATFISH CALLING. And Florida’s rich, sordid history of drug dealing and invasive species play a part. Invasive species are Gary’s bane. In the first graphic novel, he grapples with gators, feral hogs, Canadian geese (honestly, who likes them?) and snakes.

In the second graphic novel, Hogzilla…well you know. It’s right there on the cover. And let’s not forget the iguana, monitor lizards, and howler monkeys that shriek from treetops. Gary’s girl Krystal’s a lot like Gary. She likes to get high and have a good time too. But when the cops come for her man, Krystal’s actions turn her into an overnight sensation and open the door to the world of women’s wrestling.

The first novel says “vile and profane” right on the cover. There are several one-star reviews: “If this is what writing is about a child could do better. It’s as if the writer had nothing better to do than write dribble. No proper story, no theme just garbage.” I think the word the reviewer was looking for is drivel. It’s my most popular novel so far, and it snuck up on me like a Florida panther! I just turned in the third Florida Man novel, Catfish Calling. Now I’m thinking about the fourth.

Sturgis 2000

STURGIS 2000

In 2000, I rode to Sturgis with Tom Delaney. I rode Tom’s Road King, immortalized in my Biker books. Tom rode another Harley, of which he has several. We camped at the Buffalo Chip, one of Sturgis’ venerable and notorious venues. We brought tents. The restrooms were concrete bunkers that emanated effluent. One morning I entered the pillbox to find a biker passed out on the floor amid the discarded condoms and misplaced piss. He was drooling. I went to another restroom. Since then, they have been upgraded.

Saturday night’s headliner was young blues slinger Johnny Lang. But prior to that, Cher appeared to announce the winner of a raffle. First prize was a new Harley. They had chosen Cher because of her performance in the movie Mask, one of the more sympathetic portrayals of biker culture on film. It also starred Sam Elliott. Cher had been coasting on the goodwill of that movie a long time.

As Cher walked onstage, ten thousand bikers lustily cheered. “Good evening! I’m here to choose the raffle winner who will receive a new Harley. But before I begin, I’d like to tell you about my good friend Bill Clinton.”

“BOOOOOOOO!” ten thousand bikers lustily declared.

“Now wait a minute. Bills’ really a good guy.”

“BOOOOOOOOOO!”

Cher cut short her presentation. She has not been back since.

The next day, Tom and were walking through the campground when a man passed us on the left riding a springer. At the same time, a man on the right was playing with his dog.

“That’s a nice springer,” Tom declared.

I thought he meant the dog. “That’s not a springer,” I said.

“Sure it is.”

I turned to the man. “Hey buddy! What kind of dog is that?”

The man, his arms blue with ink, assumed a fighting pose. “It’s a GOOD dog! Why do you ask?”

We kept walking.

This You Call A Crime, Mike Baron

Hoss was a lab/shepherd/husky mix came to me by way of an ex-girlfriend’s brother had to move and couldn’t take Hoss with him. So I agreed to take him, sap that I am. Two weeks later, the bitch split and took my DVD player. Only good to come of it was Hoss. He weighed about a hundred pounds, shed twice his own weight weekly, ate whatever, and was fiercely protective of me. Transferred his loyalties as soon as he saw me opening the cans.

Me? I’m what you might call a grifter. I’ve run grass, acid, speed, sold time-share condos, used cars, new cars, waterfront real estate, and worked the phones for the Psychic Friends Hotline. Some people consider me a criminal. I don’t. Remember last year when that Salvation Army Santa Claus found a solid gold Panda in his kettle at the mall? That was me. I’d just burgled Capital Coin and Jewelry and was feeling saucy.

So here I was six months later high and dry. If only I’d invested those Pandas in pharmaceuticals. If only I’d socked them away in a safety deposit box. But I hadn’t. I’d gone to Cabo, hired one of those lissome ladies of the night from Los Angeles who come with their own wardrobe, and lived like a sultan, rarely returning to my six hundred dollar a night condo until rosy fingered dawn began poking her rosy fingers in my eyes. Woke up three weeks later broke, parched, with a headache that started behind my eyes and went all the way back to Iowa.

So here I was in a cheap motel room—and I mean cheap—on the outskirts of Cedar Rapids, with forty-five bucks in my wallet and a hundred pounds of Hoss at my feet, a bitchin’ 86 Camaro in the parking lot, the six banger with four on the floor and a finish halfway between Robert Davi and a mud pit. And I’m thinking. What’s a guy gotta do to put food on the table? And Hoss is looking at me. What are you gonna do, boss?

I could always hold up a convenience store. Yeah, right. C’mon, Bri, where’s your pride? You, who once hustled Marlon Brando outta ten thousand dollars to save the whales? You, who once conned HUD into coughing up sixty thou for a community development grant? You, who once peddled locks of Hendrix’ hair on the internet, complete with certificates of authenticity?

I turned on the television and there was salvation in the person of a retired police dog named Max, now trained to provide comfort to the residents of a hospice. Max’ story was Movie Of The Week stuff. Max had served honorably and with distinction in a decade-long career. He had twice been awarded for bravery. Max was too old and feeble to track crooks through the swamp. With his master’s help, Max had obtained Companion Dog Certification from the National Council of Therapeutic Animals, and now spent his days offering comfort and companionship to the elderly.

They keep drugs in assisted living facilities, especially morphine and other members of the poppy family. I looked at Hoss. He looked back, tongue lolling, and I knew he was thinking exactly the same thing: let’s get us some Certification, Bri! Let’s get us some drugs!

“You got it, big fella,” I told him, scratching him under the jaw. My fingers did the walking. Certification courses ran from one hundred and fifty to three hundred depending on the organization and level of training. An organization we will euphemistically refer to as Dog Institute Prestige Seminars Hospitale International Terpsichorium had classes starting next Monday. Registration materials arrived. I had to produce certification that my dog was licensed and had been treated for rabies, distemper, and bortadella. Anticipating such a ploy, I had lifted the appropriate papers from behind the counter at Cats Here, Dogs There, while Hoss distracted the poopsie by feigning an epileptic fit.

At the word “Sit!” he would lay on his back, legs twitching spasmodically, whipping his head from side to side while making a pathetic whining noise and pissing in a yellow arc that pooled on the floor. At the word “Fit!” he would sit. It was a good trick. He was a smart dog.

Monday morning we showed up in DIPSHIT’s parking lot, the only classic Camaro among a host of Navigators, Beemers, and Mercedes SUVs. I had shaved, showered, and wore my one pair Gap khakis along with a crisp new gray cotton T. I looked like a member of the Bolshoi. I had groomed Hoss and fixed a silk gray kerchief around his neck. He looked like a member of the Borzoi. Not!

I milled in the waiting room admiring the framed certification on the wall, the many blue ribbons and trophies DIPSHIT had collected. I smiled at other dog owners, each with beast on a leash, primly seated in folding chairs.

The door to the inner kennel opened. A thin intense woman with a beak like a B-52 looked at us. We could hear her stomach growling. “Hello. I’m Denise McClarty. I will be your instructor. Please keep your registration materials with you. I will collect them, and your tuition, after the class. Follow me into the school and please control your dogs.”

There were nine other dogs in class, all purebreds, from a Chinese Temple Dog to a Weimeraner. Hoss is okay as long as you don’t try to sniff his booty or grab his food. Then, watch out! A Mink Terrier tried to sniff his booty and before I could stop him, Hoss picked the mophead up in his jaws, shook it like a damp washcloth and tossed it while its owner, a middle-aged hausfrau with fake platinum hair and three facelifts went into hysterics and the instructor batted ineffectually in the direction of the dogfight, like a fag butler dabbing at a spot.

I grabbed Hoss by the scruff of his neck and dragged him off the hapless terrier, all the way back into the entrance foyer. The instructor followed, quivering with emotion. “Mr. Albright, I can’t permit your dog in class if he’s going to assault the other students.”

“I’m terribly sorry, ma’am. I thought we’d resolved those problems in therapy. Hoss was sexually abused by a Mink Terrier when he was a pup.”

Her tongue paused in her half-open mouth like some small furry mammal trying to decide whether to lunge for a nut. “Whatever, Mr. Albright, I’m sorry. I really can’t permit Hoss back into this class. I wish you the best of luck elsewhere.”

She turned her back and went back into the training hall, letting the door swing shut behind her. There. Done. Unpleasant, but necessary. I hung my head in shame. I selected the appropriate certification off the wall, stuck it under my jacket, and followed Hoss into the parking lot.

We were ready to spread comfort among the elderly and infirm. I had my eye on a spanking new facility called Oakwood Village, obviously intended for the upper crust, with its prairie-style architecture and lavish grounds. I had watched it progress from a developer’s sign to a long low pile of sandstone, fieldstone, timber and glass. I used to take Hoss there for purse-snatching lessons.

While selling fake Rolexes in the Caribbean, I learned that it’s best to emerge from the background, as if you were part of the picture the whole time, rather than come dancing in the front door like Gene Kelley in Singin’ In The Rain—in the big production number with Cyd Charrise. I had observed that the nurses and orderlies would wheel some of the chair-bound seniors out back to a bricked arbor, about thirty feet from undeveloped farmland, lightly forested that backed up against a farm. I had observed the comfort dogs out back accompanied by their handlers.

On a bright June morning with a gentle breeze, just enough to ground Baron Von Moskito and his Flying Circus, Hoss and I parked in our usual place, at the curb adjacent to four acres of undeveloped grass, a quarter mile down from Oakwood Village. We followed a Frisbee into the woods. The Flying Circus was waiting for us, but I had prepared with Cutter’s, and not even the vile Baron could penetrate Hoss’ gleaming coat.

I wore chinos, high-zoot sneakers, a pale yellow knit shirt with some kinda goddamn weasel stitch, and a snappy off-white fedora. Had my certification neatly clipped to my clipboard. Hoss carried the clipboard in a khaki vest that cost me sixty-five bucks at Discount Dog. We followed a path through the woods—not a deer path—a kid path, two feet wide, trampled flat, and festooned with trash, right up to the perfect emerald lawn of Oakwood Village.

At wood’s edge, I attached Hoss’ leash, ditched the Frisbee, adjusted my hat, and emerged like Errol Flynn from the Papuan jungle. Arbor vitae provided concealing cover as we made our way to the rear patio. The patio had an element of English maze, cleverly designed so as to provide the maximum amount of privacy. There were nearly a dozen alcoves where you could hide a good-sized wheelchair.

Hoss pulled me between two evergreens on to the bricked portion of the patio, into the presence of a large, gleaming wheelchair occupied by what, at first glance, appeared to be a log wrapped in a blanket. The shriveled homunculus also wore an outsized Oakland Raiders sweatshirt, hood shrouding his face like the Grim Reaper. Pulling the leash tight, Hoss went right up to him, found bare flesh at the end of a sleeve and began to lick. No reaction. Just our luck, a croaker.

“This you call a dog?” the log croaked.

I went forward to see if it had a face. “Excuse me?”

“Vhat, you’re hard of hearing too? Sprechen ze English?”

I bent down. It had a face, all right. Two blue marbles regarded me from a parched lakebed, like a pair of meteors that had landed next to each other, shattering the earth in all directions.

“Sorry, sir. This is Hoss. He’s a certified aid worker. We’re just out here seeing if anyone needs us, or would like a little company.”

I couldn’t just waltz into the facility and ask the first nurse, where’s the drugs? I had to make myself familiar. Gain their confidence. Gather a little intelligence. Despite the gnome’s inert appearance, he appeared to be fairly sharp. Might as well start with him.

The gnome removed two stick-like appendages from his lap and the wheelchair jerked my way so abruptly Hoss took a step back and barked. “If this fucking shlamazzle is a certified aid worker, I’m Yassir Arafat. Lemme see his goddamn papers.”

You could have knocked me down with a feather. Last thing I expected was some wizened ginseng root questioning my credentials. But that’s why I’d gone to the trouble of securing them. I decided to give the geezer a taste of the sheer depth and class of our scam.

“Fit,” I commanded. Hoss sat, an idiot grin on his face, tongue spilling out like a drunken insurance salesman’s tie. I knelt, unclipped Hoss’ backpack, removed the clipboard, placed the certification on top and handed it to the geezer.

He pulled it within three inches of his nose, which resembled a russet potato. Every now and then he’d peer over the top at Hoss or me. I felt like I’d been called on the carpet before the principal. “Brian Albright, huh? Brian Half-bright is more like it! You did a piss-poor job whiting out this other name here. And this certificate says that your dog Rebecca is a purebred golden lab!”

Damn. I wished I’d done a more thorough job prepping that document. But who expected anyone to give it more than a cursory glance? “Listen, old-timer. We’re here to spread comfort, not take an interrogatory. She doesn’t like to be called Rebecca. And it’s very unkind of you to make fun of her affliction. She suffers from the same skin discoloration as Michael Jackson.”

“Sonny, I don’t know from Michael Jackson, but I can smell a goniff a mile away. I saw you come out of the woods there. What’s your game?”

Of all the hospices in the Midwest, I had to choose the one with the psychic. I probably should have taken back the clipboard, excused ourselves, and retreated back to the woods. But there was something about the old guy, the hesitation of a wink, a certain perspicacity that made me want to open up to him. The guy was on to me. It takes one to know one.

Even though there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with his hearing, I hunkered and got close. “Pops, I’ll level with you. Hoss and I are with the DEA. We’re in disguise. Seems someone’s been dippin’ into your drug supply. You’re a pretty sharp old bird, but I expect our documents to back us up better than this.”

White eyebrows made twin peaks. “If you’re DEA, I’m Willie Mays. Level with me, sonny. I won’t blow the whistle on ya. I’m an alter kocher anarcho-syndicalist. I saw the inside of the Czar’s prisons before your grandfather was a twinkle in your great-grandfather’s eye. I got a rap sheet from here to Estonia. Who do you think you’re talkin’ to?” Continuously scratching Hoss behind the ears. “I saw you come out of the woods there.”

Hoss laid his big head in the geezer’s lap and snarked lunch remains while I stood like a dumb bird with my mouth open. Clearly, my stars were not in alignment. Venus was not aligned with Mars, and Saturn didn’t give a shit. Time to regroup and rethink. Get the hell out of Dodge. Go home and open a cold one.

I snapped my fingers. “Hoss, let’s go.” He looked at me reluctantly, tongue lolling as if to say, you gotta be kidding. “Hoss, let’s go!”

Reluctantly the big boy fell in at my side and I turned to walk away.

Click.

I knew that click. That click sounded suspiciously like the hammer being cocked on a revolver. But that couldn’t be. This was Oakwood Village, not Dodge City.

“Hold it right there, shtunker.”

I turned, knowing what I would see. Sure enough, the geezer had his gnarly fingers wrapped around some kind of goddamn horse pistol. “It’s a black powder 1851 .44 caliber Navy Revolver. It’ll put a hole in you the size of the Holland Tunnel. I’ll never serve a day in jail. I’ll bet you’ve got a record. Never shnorr a shnorrer. So come on back here, shmendrick, and level with this alter kocher.”

Seldom had my understanding of the universe proven so spectacularly bass-ackwards. I’d stepped into a parallel dimension. Through the looking glass. I turned, hands visible, came back toward him. The gun twitched like a big hard-on in his lap.

“That’s far enough.”

I told him my pathetic little scheme to find drugs while Hoss rummaged through the old dude’s pockets. When I finished, he tucked the gun back under the folds of his parka. “This you call a crime? All this training and subterfuge for a couple thousand bucks worth of delaudids?”

A black woman in a white smock, with the rolling gait and heft of a linebacker, appeared in a break in the hedge. “How you doin’, Mr. Navatsky? Who’s this?”

The geezer grinned, displaying supplemental insurance choppers. “Everything is kosher, Brunhilde. This is my dearly departed brother’s great grandson Brian. Brian, Nurse Brunhilde.”

“I told you my name was Brenda, Mr. Navatsky,” she said, regarding me like a piece of bad meat. “Is that your dog?”

“He’s a registered comfort hound,” I replied. “Would you like to see his papers?”

“That’s all right.”

“Thank you for taking such good care of my great great uncle.”

“Huh,” she snorted. “He ain’t so great.”

Navatsky waited for her to go before continuing in a conspiratorial whisper. “Listen, shmendrick, you still want to rip this mortuary off for chump change, or do you want to make some real money?”

My dog sat next to him looking at me expectantly. “Do you have a better idea?”

He nodded once to himself. “Wheel me around front. Take the concrete path on the left.”

We passed a tiny woman the color of a wet sheet inching along with the help of a four-legged walker. I smiled and nodded at her. She smiled brightly back. “How do you get away with keeping that horse pistol around?”

“What I get through the mail is my business. Got my own room. A man has the right to protect himself. In Russia, the first thing they did was take away all the guns.”

“Are you dying?”

“That’s right, shmendrick. Poke fun. If I feel myself slipping away, I may just take you and the dog with me.”

We came to the front of the building, a covered porch surfaced in terrazzo with a pre-fab concrete colonnade facing the sloping front lawn, the U-shaped driveway. Across the freshly-laid broad avenue was undeveloped industrial park where Hoss and I tossed Frisbee, and beyond that the stacked glass prism of a Biotech company. Two other inmates sat in wheelchairs in the shade, isolated by space, time, and their refusal to use their hearing aids.

He pointed over the rail. “See that glass building? Frederhoff Biotech. Big drug magilla. Fetal tissue research. Once a month they prepare some steroid out of fetal tissue, some kinda youth drug for this Hollywood big shot, ship it outta there via Wendleton Truck. Does the name Wendleton ring a bell?”

“Sure. Wendleton, Brink’s, Loomis, Pinkerton, they’re all in the armored car business.”

“What else?”

“Enlighten me, o wizened sage.”

“That’s right. Make fun. Wendleton’s also a strikebreaker. Nineteen twenty-seven, Boonville, Colorado, Wendleton guards fired into a group of miners protesting harsh conditions, killing eleven.”

“Were you there?”

The old man was silent. Hoss assiduously licked his hand. Seventy-five years was a long time to nurse a grudge. On the other hand, Wendleton was where the money was. It made sense. “So what’s the plan? Rip off the armored car? How much cash they carrying?”

“You don’t get it, shmendrick. We’re not after the cash, we’re after the drug. Mr. Hollywood Big Shot will pay a million bucks to get it back.”

I thought for sure the guy was missing his medication. A million bucks. Even Hoss drew back, a dubious expression on his face. Then I had another thought. “Are you sure you don’t just want this drug for yourself? And if this guy’s got some kind of youth drug, how come we haven’t heard about it?”

The old man rotated his wheels to face me, so I could see the complete and utter contempt dripping from his face. “Because, shmendrick, it doesn’t work! It’s the bunk! They’re taking him for a Siberian sleigh ride. But when you’re old and feeble, and you got a lot of money, vhat the hell.” He held his hand out palm up and Hoss resumed licking.

“We split down the middle. Until you showed up, the answer to an old man’s prayers, I had to sit here every day looking at that fucking mausoleum. You know what Frederhoff did in the war?”

“What war?”

The old man made a chopping motion. “Ehhh! You ever hear of I.G. Farben? Ahhh! What do they teach in school anyway? World War II, shmendrick! Never mind. Why do I even waste my time. Go on. Go away. And take this stinking laidik gaier with you.”

I’d seen the Wendleton trucks pulling up to the glass building. “Wait a minute, Navatsky. Who’s this Hollywood Big Shot who’d pay a million bucks?”

“Ahhhh!”

“Come on, Navatsky. I’m sorry if my history’s a little weak, what can I say? I’m the product of public education. Hoss. Lick Mr. Navatsky’s hand.”

The old guy gave me the once over. We both knew he was just going through the motions. He had to let me into his scheme. What else was he going to do? Die with his dream unrealized? I was offering him a priceless opportunity, and we both knew it. He glanced around, to make sure we weren’t being overheard by any of the other geriatrics evenly spaced along the veranda. He motioned me close. When I knelt down next to him, he whispered the name of a famous diva in my ear.

I was surprised. In the first place, I hadn’t thought of her as that old. But in retrospect, I guess she was, or maybe it was just the star’s ego which drove her to extreme measures to preserve her dwindling youth. However, no question she had the bucks, and the more I thought about it, the more it made sense.

“What’s the plan, Mr. Navatsky?”

“Okay! They ship the drug in a cheap Styrofoam ice cooler, the kind you find at Hardware Hank’s. The plan is this. We get an identical cooler. I’ll front you the money if you’re too cheap to buy it yourself. You’re waiting by the loading dock. Wendleton’s is still a cheap outfit. They only send the driver. While he’s about to load the cooler, I will distract him, you’ll switch the cooler, and nobody will notice a thing until the diva pops the lid.”

“In broad daylight?”

“Of course in broad daylight! What are you, meshugga? It’s a loading dock out back! Nobody’ll see a thing. They don’t look out the windows. They’re all downloading dirty pictures from their company computers.”

“You’ve seen this loading dock?”

“I seen it the day I borrowed Abernathy’s motorized wheelchair, so sue me. I thought he’d have a stroke. He did have a stroke. But don’t take my word for it. Go. Go on. Check it out for yourself. Then get back to me. Tomorrow. I gotta take a nap now.”

Hoss and I checked it out, and it was as the old man said. The sunken loading dock next to a small parking lot was shielded on three sides by blank concrete walls and on the fourth by the woods. This end of the biotech company was all business, hardly any windows. There were a couple dozen vehicles parked parallel to each other in two rows. I could easily hide between two of them, dash out and make the switch, if Navatsky could distract the guard.

That was a big if. He talked a good game, but he looked like he was glued to that chair. What could he do that would cause the guard to set down his precious cargo?

We returned the next day, only this time we parked in front and I took the walk around the building. Navatsky was out back in the arbor, reading Gogol in Russian. Hoss made a beeline, dragging me like a sea anchor, snarked something out of the old man’s hand, stood there chewing while the old man petted.

“What did you give him?”

“Meat loaf. Take my advice. Never order the donor kabob in a hospital cafeteria. So, John Dillinger. Did you case the joint?”

“Okay, maybe we could make the switch. But then what? Won’t they naturally suspect you? How far are they going to have to look for a suspect? The guard’s gonna remember, you can only have come from this place.”

“Trust me, boychik. They’ll never think to look here. I’ll need to borrow your dog.”

“Hoss?”

“No, your other dog. Of course Hoss!”

“It’s amazing how he likes you.” Hoss grinned while the old man stroked his head.

“Where are we going to hide the stuff? How will you contact the diva?”

“Here’s the deal, boychik. You park your car in back with the employees. What kind of car we talking?”

“Eighty-six Camaro, four on the floor.”

“Ach, what do I know from cars? Once you make the switch, you circle back here through the woods. You can park right out by the edge there, back it in, load the Styrofoam cooler into your trunk, nobody’ll see a thing. They’ll all be out front ogling the action. Give me your huddled masses staring at a train wreck. You pick me up back here, and we make our getaway through the fire trail, runs through the woods to PD. We skedaddle, we high-tail it.”

“What’s to prevent the lab from whipping up another batch?”

The geezer leaned back, the better to take in my towering ignorance. The hood fell off, revealing his tiny, pink head, like a polyp with a wire in its ear. “Sonny, they can only produce fifty cc’s of the treatment every thirty days! They use an enzyme extracted from moon dust! Sonny, this broad is paying twelve mil a pop for this shit! Trust me, they’ll pay.”

“How you going to ask for the ransom? They’ll be able to trace a call.”
The wizened homunculus held up one quivering finger, like a twisted flagpole. “Aha! That, my friend, is where the genius of the switch takes place. I will prepare a ransom note for the switched cooler! Instead of the elixir of youth, the old bag will find an untraceable note demanding one million cool ones.”

“How you going to make this untraceable? They got DNA tracking, they got infra-red whooziwhatsis up the yib-yob. You ever watch CSI?”

Navatny hawked up a goober from deep within and let fly toward the hedge. A mortar shot. “Sonny, I was fleecing Gypsies when you were suckin’ hind tit. I print the note out on a computer. Twelve point, Times New Roman. I give them a mobile phone number.”

“What mobile phone?”

He raised both gnarly, arthritic hands as if to conduct the Leipzig Philharmonic. “Vhat? Vhat, vhat, vhat? Where is the trust, Albright! Did I not tell you I’ve been thinking about this for two years?”

“You did not.”

Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Now take me to Wal-Mart. We’ve got to get the cooler and a few other things.”

Navatny slid into the bucket seat like a pile of sticks and Hoss filled the rear. When we got to Wal-Mart, he pulled a blue handicapped parking tag out of his sweatshirt and hung it on my rearview. “Park next to the door, if you can find a place.”

“Where’d you get this?”

“Huh,” he snorted. “You think I was born yesterday? I borrowed it from Mildred Guilfoyle’s Buick. She only drives Fridays, to go to bingo.”

As soon as we were inside the door he snagged an electric-powered go-cart with a basket attachment.

“What do you want me to do?” I asked.

“Just be at the check-out counter with your wallet open, sonny boy,” he said, and zipped away without a backward glance. I wandered the aisles trying to make eye contact with pert young things of which there were few. Wal-Mart was like Alice’s Restaurant. What you couldn’t get, you didn’t need. Finally I saw the geezer moving through the checkout lane like a bulldozer with a full load. He had so much junk piled up in the wire basket he couldn’t see where he was going. Styrofoam cooler, thermos bottle, a CD boom box, two bottles of prune juice, some greetings cards, a road atlas, a pair of fuzzy pink bedroom slippers.

“What is all this stuff?” I asked as the clerk rang it up.

“I don’t get out to the store so often, so sue me! I’m saving my receipts and will settle up after the program, izzat all right with you, boychik?”

“That’ll be two hundred and seventy dollars and eighty-five cents, sir,” the clerk chirped. Sighing, I reached for J. Osborne O’Poole’s credit card. We could barely get all that junk and Hoss in the back seat and trunk. When we got back to Oakwood, I had to use a shopping cart to ferry the old man’s junk back to his room. Brenda cast a chary eye.

“Redecorating, are we, Mr. Navatsky?”

“Don’t you worry about it, Brunhilde. Comes time for der Walkyrie, you vill be notified.”

Brenda slowly shook her head, grunting in a negative way. “Huh. Huh, huh, huh. There’s no fool like an old fool.”

Navatsky held his hand up, fingers crossed. “The Negro and the Jew, like this.”

Hoss went down the hall while I got the old guy settled, showed up a minute later with a pork chop in his jaws, and someone shouting.

“What next, o wizened sage?” I asked.

“Next, take a powder. Go on, get outta here. Be here Thursday the nineteenth by ten a.m. sharp, I’ll give you the cooler. You’ll make your way through the woods and wait for the Wendleton truck. I’ll supply the distraction. Don’t you worry about it, Albright. A doozy. Little Eva could dance naked on the truck and pipples won’t notice. Not even your dog, this bloodhound, this paradigm of caninehood would notice!”

Comes the big day. I’m at the facility by nine-thirty, talking to my dear old uncle. Hoss is making the rounds, a lick here, a slurp there, cleaning breakfast off chins and hands. Dear uncle proudly shows me the Styrofoam six-pack, duct-taped shut and sealed with a large, official looking pale green document in a zip-loc bag. The word Frederhoff pokes up.

Navatny wore an XXXL Oakland Raiders sweatshirt. Just like cars. The smaller the person, the larger the garment. The tip of his nose emerged into sunlight like Jimmy the Groundhog. “Pick it up,” he growled.

It was surprisingly heavy. “What’s in here?”

“Never you mind, boychik. A message. And if you’re thinking it weighs too much and the guard will notice, wrong-o! That thing’s packed with ice to keep the enzyme cool. Weight, dimensions, details, identical! Hours I spent watching and waiting with my Zeiss binoculars, which I took off a furshtunker stormtrooper I killed on the Eastern Front, winter, ’43, along with a nice Walther.”

Wendleton’s was due at ten-thirty. “Don’t worry about the mutt. I’ll take care of the mutt. And when you get back, we’ll celebrate with a bottle of Jagermeister.” We were out by the edge of the patio near the tree line and the field. No one noticed as I hefted the white Styrofoam cooler and disappeared into the brush. No one noticed as I thrashed through the woods in a semi-circle, heading for the back parking lot of the biotech building.

They weren’t real woods. They were the type of light growth sprinkled with trash that sprouts on the edge of development. Birch, ash, alder, cottonwood, the occasional oak sprouting a severed limb, marked for death or maybe not, if the developer was Green. My foot crunched a Ding Dong wrapper. It was slow going in the heat, in the sun, hefting the cooler awkwardly before me. A tendril of sweat cascaded down my forehead. I could see the biotech building ahead through the trees, a smooth expanse of new red brick. The black-topped rear parking lot was mostly empty, save for a company van and an old Thunderbird parked near the woods. I stopped at the edge of the lot behind the van, about twenty feet from the loading dock, set the cooler down, and waited, panting from exertion and excitement.

I was spending my cut in my head. A cool half mil. New car for starters. Maybe one of those Vipers. No. Something with room for a broad and Hoss. Maybe a big SUV. The wind whistled in the trees. I heard a truck approaching. A second later, the gray Wendleton’s armored van, a safe on wheels with a windshield visor, rolled slowly down the incline toward the back lot. I crouched, heart thudding. Navatny had told me to wait for the distraction. It would be obvious. I waited.

The Wendleton’s truck backed into the loading dock. The driver’s door opened. A stocky fellow in a gray uniform and cap got out, walked toward the loading dock, up the three iron steps to the rear door. Buzzer. A moment later the door opened and a man appeared with a clipboard and a white Styrofoam cooler on a hand truck. The guard signed the clipboard, picked up the cooler. The biotech guy went back inside, the steel door shut, kaboom, finito.

A Ford Focus with an Imperial Pizza sign strapped to the roof zipped down the drive followed by a mini-van that said Strip-O-Gram. They pulled up in front of the Wendleton’s truck. Guy got out of the Focus carrying one of those big red vinyl insulated pizza boxes, even though it’s got to be eighty five degrees out. Three poopsies popped out of the mini-van in rain coats with a boom box. One of them set the boom box on the truck’s roof and turned it on. Gloria Gaynor! Boogie Wonderland! The guard came down the three iron steps, leaving the Styrofoam box on the loading dock. The kid with the pizza started wrangling, the three poopsies started stripping.

This was it! This was the diversion! I hoisted my white Styrofoam box and hotfooted stealthily toward the loading dock. No need. I glanced left and those girls were putting on quite a show—the pizza guy had forgotten his pizza, the guard had forgotten his name. I was just about to make the switch when the cooler began to vibrate in my hands. This is new, I thought. It started to hum. It got hot in my hands and began to blister. I set it down and grabbed the real deal. Soon as I was off the loading dock, the replacement box exploded. Fwoosh. Roman candles, screaming meemies, a real old-fashioned Fourth of July. Even the strippers were staring at the Amazing Technicolor Beer Cooler. It started blasting the “1812 Overture,” the Boston Pops version!

The old coot had rigged some kind of bomb in the replacement box! How are they going to get the phone number, I wondered. I beat it through the woods carrying the real deal, trying to figure what the hell happened. Some freak chain-reaction of mundane chemicals? I got the wrong box?

The old bastard set me up?

I got far enough into the woods no one was following, and then I got suspicious. Dug out my knife and opened it up. Inside was a thermos packed in dry ice inside plastic. I shook the thermos. It was solid. I grabbed the thermos and headed back toward Oakhaven dogged by gnawing anxiety.

You know the rest. Every denizen of the nursing home was lined up on the veranda to watch the show, even some geezer in a roll-out bed with an IV drip. Navatny was splitsville, along with Hoss, my Camaro, and enough OxyContin and Delaudid to live like an Arab potentate in Mexico.

The old bastard, I should have expected that. Never shnorr a shnorrer. But Hoss?

Killer Nuns, by Mike Baron

KILLER NUNS

I recently wrote my second Western under the psudonym, A.W. Hart. It’s called Killer’s Train. It instantly became my best selling novel. People are crazy for Westerns! This is from my second Western, also by A.W. Hart, called Curse of the Black Rose. It’s about a group of killer nuns on the Texas/Mexico border in the early twentieth century.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN “We Are Not Like Other Nuns”

It was dusk. The town held its breath as the six riders strolled their horses down Main Street, stropping in front of the hotel. Their leader, a tall man with a Mayan face, stood in his stirrups.

“OLA! I CLAIM THIS TERRITORY IN THE NAME OF GENERALLISIMO ALCALA NEBRES! YOU ARE HIS SUBJECTS ACCORDING TO THE LAND GRANT ISSUED BY KING FERDINAND VII. GENERAL NEBRES IS A FAIR AND JUST RULER. OBEY HIM IN ALL THINGS AND YOU WILL PROSPER. GIVE US THE BOY AND WE’LL LEAVE!”

A .44 caliber bullet punched him off his horse. The crack reverberated as the remaining soldiers gained control of their horses and turned around, running a gauntlet as they raced for the open plains. It was impossible to aim accurately from a galloping horse and they didn’t try. It was survival time. Delacroix had had enough. A second soldier fell from his saddle in front of the stables, his foot caught in the stirrup as the horse dragged him for a hundred feet before he slipped out. The four remaining soldiers high-tailed it amid a flurry of lead.

Catalina, crouched by an open window on the second floor of the Arlington, didn’t fire a shot. Fifteen minutes later, the mayor and his makeshift posse gathered on the hotel’s broad front porch as a dozen citizens stood in the street.

A thin man in a derby climbed the steps and faced Slemons. “Why did you do that? Now they’re just going to come back and burn this town to the ground!”

“What were we supposed to do, Shaffner? Let them have their way with us? How did that work out yesterday when they shot the sheriff and the bank manager?”

“It wasn’t the same bunch!” Shaffner whined.

“What does it matter? Who do you think is going to come and save us? Our rider hasn’t even reached Cruzado! And then it’ll take ’em another day to alert the commander at Fort Bliss. We don’t even know how many men they have. According to these sisters, General Nebres has over four hundred.”

“What sisters?” Shaffner demanded.

Catalina and Sofia stepped forward wearing their blue habits. Caroline was with the children.

“This town is under the protection of the Mission at Santo Tomas.”

Shaffner barked. “A bunch of nuns? A fat lot of good that’ll do.”

Catalina smiled. “We are not like other nuns.”

“Oh yeah? What? Don’t tell me you know how to shoot.”

Catalina turned to the mayor. “May I borrow your pistol?”

The mayor flipped it in his hand and gave it to her butt first. Catalina picked up an empty bottle and tossed it to Shaffner who caught it in both hands. “Toss that bottle in the air, Mr. Shaffner. As high as you can throw.”

Shaffner looked around, as if for support. All eyes were on him. He underhanded the bottle into the air and as it hovered at its apex, Catalina drew her pistol and shattered it. Shards plunked to the dirt.

A man in back said, “I never seen such a thing.”

Catalina immediately regretted her sin of pride.

Holy Father, please forgive me.

“We will stay with you until the danger has passed.”

“What if he brings his whole dang army?” someone called from the back.

“That won’t happen,” Catalina said. “He has declared the Hansen Ranch the center of his new empire. He murdered Mr. and Mrs. Hansen. Only his son Arnold survived, to bring us news of this atrocity.”

Arnold stood at the head of the stairs. “I saw him gut my folks with a sword. For nothing! I tried to kill him, but I missed. I didn’t miss this time. You can’t reason with these people. They are in this country illegally. They want what’s ours. We either fight ’em, or roll over and play dead.”

The arrival of twenty horse soldiers entering Delacroix from the north stopped all talk until the unit reached the hotel. A lieutenant wearing cavalry colors and a hat with a vertical front brim spoke, his horse putting him even with the people on the porch.

“Lieutenant Ted Buck, U.S. Cavalry. Who’s in charge here?”

“I’m Mayor Slemons. We lost our sheriff yesterday. Robbers killed him. We just run off six banditos from a General Nebres. You got our message?”

“Your man Miller hailed us yesterday. Lucky for you we were out on patrol. Looking for Naiche. Where can my men water their horses?”

“There’s a trough out front of the livery down at the end of the street.”

Buck dismounted, handing his reins to his second in command. “Take care of the horses. Set guards.”

“Yes sir.”

The lieutenant stepped up on the porch and shook Slemons’ hand. “I’m sorry we missed them. Looks like you did okay. Anybody hurt?”

“We killed two of the bastards,” Slemons said. “This here’s Arnold Hansen. Nebres killed his parents. Arnold shot one of the raiders. Phil Wyatt shot another. Four got away.”

Buck looked at the nuns. “What are these sisters doing here?”

Catalina stepped up. “We’re on our way back to the Mission at Santo Tomas. We rescued a mother and two babes. We are taking them to the mission.”

Buck looked her up and down. “Why’re you holding a pistol? I never saw a nun with a gun.”

“We are not like other nuns.” She returned the pistol the mayor.

Buck raised his eyebrows. “Sister, I urge you to return to your convent and leave the fighting to professionals. Take these children. I have not heard of this General Nebres until now. We will need to conduct surveillance to determine if he’s really brought four hundred soldiers into sovereign U.S. territory.”

“We saw them.”

“Where?”

“The Hansen Ranch, about fifty miles southwest of here.”

“What were you doing there?”

“Following the orders of our Mother Superior, we had gone into Mexico to learn what we could about Nebres. This all started when Cobb Hansen brought in an Indian boy who’d escaped from Nebres’ army.”

Buck made a disbelieving face. “Forgive me if I seem skeptical, but in my experience, nuns don’t involve themselves in military surveillance.”

“We are not like other nuns.”

“Clearly.”

Catalina turned to Sofia. “Get Sister Carolina and the others. We’re going to the mission.” She turned to Slemons. “Sir, could you lend us a horse? I promise we’ll return it.”

“Certainly, Sister. We have you to thank for your warning.”

She turned to Arnold. “I think you should come with us.”

“What for? My fight is here.”

“We would like you to tell our Mother Superior what you saw. We need all the information we can get on Nebres.”

Arnold made a face. He had teeth like a horse. “Why?”

“It may become necessary for us to intervene.”

“What?” Arnold squawked. “You’re a bunch of nuns!”

“We are not like other nuns.”

“Yeah, I heard that.”

Slemons put his hand on Arnold’s shoulder. “I think Arnold could do a lot more good here. We only got twenty soldiers and maybe a half dozen fighting men. What if they come back?”

“Sir, it’s possible we could stop Nebres’ depredations if we can talk to him.”

“How you gonna do that?”

“He’s Catholic. He travels with a priest. We will appeal to his better nature.”

Slemons pulled his head back. “Sister, men like that don’t got no better nature. Remember the Alamo.”

“We will reach out to the Cardinal in Dallas and ask him to intervene. He will threaten Nebres with excommunication. Even a murderous general fears the wrath of the Church.”

“Sister, we truly appreciate what you’ve done for us today. But it’s best for all for you to head on over to the Mission and leave the fightin’ to the men folk.”

Musicals by Mike Baron

MUSICALS


I love musicals. I credit musicals with my interest in music, because the songs must have audience appeal. That means chord changes, bridges, and hooks. When you think of the great musicals, you think of the songs. My Fair Lady: “I Could Have Danced All Night.” Carousel: “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over.” Singin’ in the Rain: “Good Morning.” Gigi: “Thank Heaven For Little Girls.” And the greatest musical of all, The Band Wagon: “That’s Entertainment.” Musicals peaked in the fifties and sixties. The nation was younger, more hopeful and more naive in those days, and musicals were for everybody.


Throughout the Great Depression, movie studios understood their primary job was to entertain. People didn’t go to the theater to be lectured or wallow in misery, although, God knows, there were plenty of movies that did that. Lost Weekend. The Grapes of Wrath. High Sierra.


Musicals have fallen out of favor, but never completely. In the seventies, we had Hair, God Spell, A Chorus Line, GiGi, Saturday Night Fever and Evita. In the eighties we had Little Shop of Horrors, The Best Little Whorehouse, Grease, Fame, and A Chorus Line. In the nineties we had The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and Hugh Jackman’s Oklahoma. In fact, Hugh Jackman is a one-man musical revival, having starred in Les Mis and The Greatest Showman as well.


More recently, we have La La Land, The Greatest Showman, Mama Mia, and Pitch Perfect. The modern musical abandons the artifice of ordinary people bursting into song, putting the story in a musical context. A struggling band or singer. I miss the old days when ordinary people burst into song, but I’ll take what I can get. Britain produces some of the best. The Commitments. Hear My Song. Sing Street. If you haven’t seen these, I urge you to check them out. They will send you out of the home theater singing.

The Most Forgiving Medium by Mike Baron

THE MOST FORGIVING MEDIUM

Comics are the most forgiving medium. You can get away with things in comics that you couldn’t in any other medium. Just look at Superman. He first appeared in 1938 and it wasn’t until the advent of television that they tried to transfer him to another medium. The early Superman show with George Reeves was entertaining in its day, but no one watching actually believed a man could fly. It wasn’t until the advent of CGI and multi-million dollar budgets that film caught up with what comics could do with a little ink on paper.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The Tick. Men of Mystery. In order for these to succeed, comics had to pave the way. These days, comics have conquered so much popular culture that you can pitch such ideas and be taken seriously. Producers know that comic book awareness is universal, even as comic book sales plummet. The medium invites parody. Trashman. Squirrel Girl. Punisher Vs. Archie. Anybody can string two words together and make a comic about it. And people will buy that comic. Because it’s a comic.

Serious comics that succeed are the exception. Watchmen. Maus. Biographical comics such as Bill Griffith’s Hidden Ink, or much of Fantagraphics’ product come to mind. Fantagraphics is that rare publisher that takes comics seriously, and by that I mean they see comics as a legitimate avenue for serious writing. There are tens of thousands of “serious” comics from major publishers that fail to entertain, because their goal is not to entertain, but to deliver a message. Nothing wrong with it, but the writer’s first duty is to entertain. If you create a lifeless block of lectures and talking heads, the reader will flip the pages until the end, and then toss it in a pile that includes gas station handouts and free weekly fliers.

Comics are the worst medium for horror because the most horrible rendering can’t match what the reader would imagine, had the picture been painted purely in prose, like the work of H.P. Lovecraft or Robert R. McCammon. Yet horror comics proliferate. Readers can’t get enough of them. The old EC horror comics usually ended with a gruesome comeuppance to the psycho protagonist. As far as evoking supernatural terror, fuggedaboudit.

What comics do best, even badly written comics, is create magic between the page and the eye. When you gaze on a full page rendering of an undiscovered city in the Amazon, and the picture draws you in so that you inhabit the environment, that’s magic.

Novels and cinema are the best medium for horror. A skilled novelist can create unforgettable moods, settings, and characters. Remember when you read The Shining? Movies control pacing, lighting, and especially sound. Remember The Exorcist? We love our Universal monsters, and stories about werewolves, vampires, and zombies will always be with us.

As for comics, the writer’s first duty is to entertain. If the reader succeeds, all other things are possible.

Weekend at Dude’s by Mike Baron

WEEKEND AT DUDE’S

Flew to Phoenix last week. Dude met me at the airport. We rode to his house on the farthest fringes of Phoenix at ninety miles per hour. Dude has two dogs. One is an old, fat German shepherd they found quivering in their front yard covered in mud. The dog was chipped. They contacted the owners who lived on the other side of the city. No response. Conclusion: the owners had abandoned the dog on purpose. The Rudes took her in and have been caring for her ever since, nursing her through a rattlesnake bite.

“If I didn’t have three thousand dollars right then, she would have died.”

We shot three short videos which I put up on my Facebook page. They may still be there. On Friday, a cop came to the door. I stepped outside to speak with him. He asked for my ID. He read me my Miranda rights. He burst out laughing. It was a friend of Dude’s who had agreed to this practical joke, and then took us on a ride along to the other side of the tracks. Dozens of pop-up tents crowding the sidewalk. People with no hope collapsed on the concrete waiting for the soup line to open. The officer explained services, and we talked to some of the homeless. One young man had been a star high school athlete, but fell into drugs, fathered a child, and just as he was getting clean, his mother died of cancer.

On Saturday, we went to the Biltmore Astoria, Frank Lloyd Wright’s astonishing hotel in Paradise Valley. Wright’s famous attention to detail was evident in the furniture, the ballroom, the carpet design, and the frescoes, which resembled ancient Egyptian and Mayan art. The food and service were first rate despite the fact we were dressed in rags.

Came back Sunday.