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Previously, in "My Life, Or Yours?"--The Prologue--Nora Applegate had experienced difficulty in waking from a bad dream. In it she'd been visited upon by spirits from the other side, one of whom claimed to be Gabriel, the Angel of Death. The Archangel had tried to convince Nora that she'd crossed over, and that what she'd experienced was not a dream. All the while, however, it was not the Archangel she'd seen, but Rufus--a demon--who by altering Nora's sense of reality, had created a "mirage" designed to gain Nora's confidence and at the same time, achieve her death.

So far in "No, No Nora," A paranormal psychologist has convinced Nora to put up as much as $1 million in exchange for the capture of Rufus, who may have killed Nora's father, Marty Blakemore, and, from the Prologue, Nora Wingate, a sometime stage and screen actress. At least half of the money is to come from the inheritance of Albert Blakemore, the grandson of Nora. Albert and his live-in girlfriend, Karen Whispers, are trying to continue living large on a dwindling family fortune, and Albert believes that he has found a way to circumvent the system.


The following
Is rated PG-13:
May be too intense
For young readers
And contains:
V -- Violence
MT -- Mature Themes
GL -- Graphic Language


Feeling all fresh from the shower and clean shaven, Albert slapped on his favorite after shave, followed by a couple dabs of "Chase Gray Away" foam mousse.

"Look lively, son! Look lively!" he said into the mirror as he stepped back and pulled tighter on the sash of his robe. "Suck it in! Get that chin up!" he barked, then adding, almost as an afterthought as he returned to the mirror for a quick pore inspection, "Big day today, big day. . .don't screw it up."

While still in close-up range, Albert tugged at his lower eyelids. . .first one, then the other. 'Yeah, the forties are here,' he thought, as he reached for the toothbrush and began uncapping the paste.

In his twenties Albert had always thought that 'professional student' might be his calling. Then in his thirties he'd thought that making a splash with the genteel ladies of Europe would be the way to go. The latter also turned out to be his nuptial decade--three marriages in ten years, each more disastrous than the one before.

'You always wondered what old would look like,' he kept thinking all through the vigorous brushing routine. 'Well, kiddo, you're looking at it.'

Then rinsing out and giving his toothbrush a final rinse, he placed it back in the holder.

'No black balloons for this old boy though,' he mused further as he turned and clicked off the lighted mirror. 'Not yet, anyway. Give it another ten years.'

A pull on the door brought fresh aromas from downstairs rushing through his senses.

"Nice to smell bacon and coffee again in the morning, though," he said, talking to himself this time with a smile and a quick lift of the eyebrows.

Pausing in the doorway, Albert again surveyed the bedroom scene. It was the same room that had shocked him as he awoke, in that--except for the unmade bed--not a single item out of any drawer or closet was out of place.

'Well, I'll bet she took longer putting it back together than I did taking it apart.' he reasoned in studied silence. 'She favors the piecemeal approach, of course. . .not having any real stake in the matter.'

The 600 sq. ft. bed-bath-dressing area featured his-and-hers bathrooms, and directly across on the outside wall. . .full length silk draperies in vibrant peach. Then to greet the visitor, centered between the entryway and a wide canopy bed all decked out in velvety earth tones, was a large Scottish coat of arms, woven directly into the antique ivory carpeting. A burl wood foot locker, crafted with inlaid mother-of-pearl, accented the ensemble.

Albert then crossed over to the foot locker and opened it, removing a pair of dumbbells.

"Exercise is the key, my good man," he breathed aloud, finishing with an extended sigh as he gave it about 20 curls standing in place before replacing the bells and silently closing the lid.

He began dressing leisurely, thinking ahead to the day's events. 'Should I take the Degas?. . .or the Toulouse-Lautrec?. . .or both?' he wondered. 'The Degas was a wedding present. . .doesn't seem very cool. . .'

Having pulled three suits from the closet he stood looking at them over the bed while his mind continued to wander.

'Be sure to confirm those reservations at the Luxor. . .it was on Karen's list, but no slip-ups, uh-h, uh-h. If you want something done right. . .'

He chose the green one. . .the same one he'd always chosen.

Then looking over his collection of Guccis he got caught in what has been called the "stare stammer". . .staring absently for several moments in blissful oblivion. By the time he'd returned to Earth he was holding a pair of cracked and checked gray patent leather slip-ons.

'Now I understand the term, "wardrobe malfunction"' he thought as he held one in each hand, turning them over several times. 'Oh what the hell. . .they're comfortable.'

Finally he turned to his tie rack. The rack was loaded with new ties, still hanging on their original store hangers.

'Maybe a new tie. . .whad'd'ya think?' is what suddenly took hold in his mind. Then after he'd finished the thought, it surprised him.

'Jeez, I hate ties. Look at these things. Why couldn't there be even one decent tie?. . .now that I think about it, one like Mr. Drake had on?. . .hand painted?. . .couple a' bills--I seen 'em down on Rodeo.'

Sorting quickly through, he picked one and held it next to his suit. 'It'll have to do,' he thought as he began working it under his collar. Then when it came out too long he stripped it off and stuffed it into a suit pocket.

He wondered, though, if there wasn't something else. . .like a hat, maybe. Albert hadn't worn a hat in years and again the thought surprised him. But he went for it, getting down a dusty box that he'd hoped would contain a black fedora.

'Hats don't go out of style. . .do they?' he wondered as he adjusted the brim by sliding his palm along it. . .getting it down over his right eye, just so.

He began checking himself in the mirror and at the same time reaching into his pocket to retrieve the necktie. This time the bout with the tie went more smoothly and after he'd finished, he turned sideways a few times, checking all angles.

Next came the 'walk'. . .heel lift. . .slight wag of the head. Arms. . .not too much.

"Ah, yes. . .Mr. Drake, I believe?" he said out loud, extending a glad hand. . .all the while making sure that the swagger was just right. "They call me. . .'The Pretty Boy,'" he went on, quickly withdrawing his hand to again run his palm over the all-important dip in the brim.

Then he remembered something else. . .a cigar that had lain in the top dresser drawer for God knows how long after one of his friends had handed it to him in celebration of new parenthood.

'Can't say I ever liked "cee-gars". . .but why not?' he thought as he slipped the cigar into his outside breast pocket.

"Ah, Holly-weird, I couldn't have done it without you," he chimed into the mirror, almost with a song in his voice. "Who besides a Hollywood burglar would know that a silver beaded home movie screen placed in front of each motion sensor would kill the system?"

Then in a quick change of tone he turned toward the door, briskly rubbing his hands together and whispering, "All we need now are the three key ingredients, and they're on their way--'no problemo"'.

Yet it was the door that presented him with his one and only problem. Of the three sensors in the house this was the only one positioned over a doorway, and Albert couldn't go past it without congratulating himself over his one--and only--original solution.

'Dammit I'm good,' he thought for the umpteenth time. 'How would they have done it in 'The Break In' if they'd had to deal with blocking the door? Make a bridge using two ladders, right?" then adding with a sigh as he spread both arms in a gesture of triumphal self satisfaction, "Of course. . .give it up for the genius."

Then turning to look before leaving, he said, "Bottom line. . .it means I have one more thing to do--revisit this room."


Rodeo Drive
11:40 a.m.

'Now there's a good boy,' Albert thought as an SUV was backing away from a stall directly in front of Gucci's. 'Don't you just love valet parking?' he bantered with himself as he eased the big Mercedes in after the Escalade.

"Good morning, sir," said the clerk, whose name badge read 'L. Goodwin.' "Your name please?"

"Albert Blakemore."

"Ah, yes, of course! Mr. Blakemore! Well, I'd hardly recognized you, sir. It seems a while ago since we've 'ad the pleasure. I must say we're looking well. Lost a bit o' weight, 'ave we?"

"I. . .don't believe so, I. . .my weight hardly ever changes."

"Extraordinary, sir! Looking fit as a fiddle, I'd say. Can I get you anything?. . .a spot of tea, per'aps?"

"Uh-h. . .Chai tea, if you could. That is, a Chai tea latte, if it isn't too much trouble."

"Oh, very good, sir. And it's no trouble. . .no trouble a'tall. I'll 'ave one brought over directly. Now. . .what else? Wha' tis it that brings you to us today?"

When Albert asked to see the shoe he'd worn in, Mr. Goodwin said, "Ah, yes, I do remember that model, though it 'as been a few years, now, 'asn't it? I must say, sir. . .you've certainly 'managed' with those. I've not seen a pair in that condition for quite some time. Let's see, you purchased those in. . .uh-h!" he said, looking up with a smile. Why, it's been twelve years, sir! Almost to the day, imagine that."

Albert raised his eyebrows. . .smiled, and quickly changed the subject. "Uh-h, excuse me, but. . .before you 'get away' as it were, I wonder if I might use your 'ringer.' Is that what you call them in the Old Country. . .'ringers?'"

No, sir. In the 'Old Country' we call them 'telephones.'"

"Aha," Albert responded laughingly. "Two nearly identical cultures separated by a common language, I believe it's said."

This time it was Mr. Goodwin who just smiled. "You're perfectly welcome to use mine, sir. Meanwhile I'll pop 'round the back and check for something in your size straight away."

"Why thank you," Albert said, taking the phone, then adding as he stepped toward the seating area. "This'll only take a few seconds." Then settling into one of the fitting chairs Albert dialed and waited.

"The number you have dialed is either no longer in service or has been temporarily disconnected. If you require further assistance. . ."

"What?" he whispered, as he lowered the phone, just staring at the thing as he tried to remember when he'd last paid the bill. Then pulling the phone back up, he dialed another number.

"You have reached the private number of Karen Whispers. Please leave a message. . ."

"Karen," he groaned just under his breath. "Turn on your phone and leave it on! The house phone's been disconnected. Call me at the club in exactly twenty minutes. That will be, let's see. . .noon. And before you even have a chance to ask, that's. . .'your time', sweetheart." then clicked off--just as his latte arrived.

"Sir! Such great good fortune! I 'ave exactly one pair left of the same model as yours--and in your size!"

"Well, that 'is' a surprise," Albert replied, as within moments he was admiring them in the foot mirror. "They feel great," he exclaimed. I'll wear them out."

"Oh, I'm sure you will, sir!. . .uh-h-h! Oh, I'm so sorry, sir. I didn't mean for that to come out as it did."

Albert decided to skip the tête-à-tête that seemed to be developing and asked to see a hand-painted tie to go with the suit he was wearing.

"That suit, sir?

"Yes, this suit. Is there something wrong with it?"

"Oh, no sir. It 'was' a fine. . .that is. . .dear me, I seem to be lacking a certain degree of rapprochement this morning, don't I?"

Albert glanced at his watch and insisted that he was in a hurry.

"Oh, this won't take long, sir! I 'ave the perfect tie for you--one I thought of the moment I saw you come in. And here i'tis, sir. What do you think?"

It was the "American Gothic" by artist Grant Wood on a tie, in an extreme 'narrow-fication' of the original painting, which caused Albert to laugh out loud when he saw it, then noting further that as an artistic piece it was very well done. "I'll take it," he said.

"Excellent, sir. Will there be anything else? We 'ave a line of men's cologne that's the envy of the world. Perhaps. . ."

Albert declined, interrupting the man while looking again at his watch.

"Well, then, with the shoes at three-fifty and the tie at two-fifty, your total comes to $600. And 'ow will you be paying today, sir?"

Albert reached in and withdrew a leather pocket organizer containing plastic from all over the world. "This one should do," he replied.

Of course, sir. Thank you. Now if you don't mind, this will only take a few moments. Enjoy your tea, sir, and I shall return shortly."

'I distinctly remember saying that there could be no slip-ups," Albert thought, his face growing more taut each minute as he sipped again on his latte. 'Slow to anger, they used to say. Well, friends, that was then. You're not looking at the same old Albert. No more Mr. Nice Guy. End of story.'

Albert noticed that the clerk was returning all too quickly.

"Uh-h, excuse me, Mr. Blakemore, it's our policy to cheerfully suspend judgment concerning apparel that looks a bit the 'worse for wear' when a customer enters the store. This time, however, it's your card. A've you any others?. . .one that is in, shall we say, better condition?"

"I must have handed you one of my wife's cards--so terribly sorry. This one, then. Try this one."

"We're not in the 'abit of 'trying' out cards, Mr. Blakemore. This is not a track-and-field event where the goal is to just make it over the bar. But if you insist. . .excuse me one more time--please."

"No, no, no. Wait, I'll take the tie. . .forget the shoes."

"As you wish, sir," said the clerk, raising his chin and looking along his pointed nose. "I assume you'll be giving it as a gift. Shall I 'ave it wrapped for you, sir?"

"Well, my good man. This time you're a bit off the mark, I'm afraid," Albert replied, finally having had enough of the clerk's sniffy attitude. "It's for a man who hates neckties, which leads me to believe that this one should do perfectly. You see, when I give fashion items as gifts, I only buy French."


Wilshire Boulevard
11:55 a.m.

The clock on the dash was staring at Albert like a big green eye in the sky. "Why me, Lord?. . .why me?" he said out loud.

Albert wasn't known as the 'late' Albert Blakemore for nothing.

'No one thinks this is going to be a viable system of transportation in five years, I hope.' he thought as he sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic. 'When are things going to get fixed?. . .why the hell aren't people doing their job?'


Le Club
Sunset Boulevard
12:15 p.m.

"Good morning James," Albert called out while waving his pass. James' return greeting, however, was considerably cheerier than Albert's.

"Hold that door," Albert called out from almost the full length of the lobby--something he seemed to be doing at least 99 percent of the time. He also had a success rate that hovered around 98 percent, but this morning's wasn't among them.

Turning back to the security station, Albert asked, "Has anyone been asking for me, James?. . .any calls you know of?" but making a quick U-turn when James shook his head.

A few strides into his lope towards the elevators, and he'd almost passed the door marked "Stairs" before thinking again and making a last-moment turn to the left. The stairs went by two, even three at a time. One of those three caused him to trip, also prompting a juicy expletive as he paused to brush his hands together.

The third floor tap room had already drawn in a few 'lunchies,' but still wasn't what could be called busy. "Hey, Raul," Albert called to the bartender--different day, different bartender--as he approached and still breathing hard.

"Hey, there's my main man! Uh-h Oh. Don't look around, Mr. Blakemore. They could be gaining on you," Raul joked with an easygoing chuckle.

"Gaining on me?. . .I don't think so," Albert replied with a chuckle of his own. "Hey, do me a favor and let me use the phone. Has anyone called?. . .for me, that is?"

"Nada, nothing, zip, no one," Raul said shaking his head as he turned and lifted the phone off the back bar.

"The cordless. Could I?. . .please? I just want to sit in that back corner for a few minutes."

"Can you make it short?"

"Five minutes. . .I swear. And bring me my usual, okay?"

Eagerly taking the phone Albert headed for the most remote table in the room and dialed. Then snapping the phone to his ear, his eyes widened as his jaw fell almost to the table.

'No way,' he thought. 'Who could she be talking to?. . .I must have misdialed.'

Then taking a deep breath, Albert dialed again and listened. This time he got a ring tone.

"Hello?"

"Karen! What the hell is going on? Where are you?. . .are you even at home?"

"Yes, of course I'm home. . .where are you? I just put the phone down trying to call you. They said. . ."

"Yes, yes, yes. They'll get around to it. The point is that you were supposed to call me at noon! Didn't you listen to my message?"

"What message? Albert. . ."

"Oh, so you just now turned on your phone, too. Karen, listen to me. We cannot afford to be out of touch with each other. . .do you understand? The house phone's been disconnected. My phone's been cut off. You have the only phone! Leave the damn thing on! Get the charger out and keep it charged up."

"Albert, please listen a minute. I'm in a panic and you're yelling at me. The exterminators are here. I don't know if I should let them in or not."

"What exterminators? I don't even 'have' exterminators."

"Well apparently you do because they're here and they want to do your six month check. You must've signed for it. The paperwork has your name and address on it."

"Aw, c'mon. That's all gimmickry. They never follow through on that crap!"

"Well they did this time. What should I do, Albert?"

"Oh, God. . .why today? Why now? Listen. Don't let them in, you hear? Even if they ask. Got that?"

"What should I say if they do?. . ."

"They won't. They're just going to walk around the outside, and that's it. They'll be gone in ten minutes. Besides, they'll be able to verify that the house appeared to be secure if we need it. Now, what was the first item on your list?"

"What list? Albert, I only had one item--check reservations at the Luxor."

"Done. . .or not done?"

"Done. Albert, you're treating me like some sort of. . ."

"Go. . .or no go?"

"Go."

"Terrific. Fantastic. Okay, now we'll go over my list. You didn't knock the screens over, vacuuming or some shit, did you?"

"The floors were filthy, Albert. When's the last time. . ."

"You 'were' vacuuming, for god's sake. Karen, can't you just sit and watch TV like any housewife would? Do you know what day this is?. . .scratch that. I didn't ask that question. Where's all the junk, Karen?. . .the stuff that's supposed to be lying all over the floor. Where is it?"

"It's exactly where it was this morning. I just moved it, then put it back. You'll see."

"No, I won't see. I'm not coming back there. . .remember? It's the alibis, Karen. I've been seen at the club since noon. You're being picked up at 3:30 by my friend Tony and brought over here. Just do whatever he says. Then we leave for Vegas in my car. It's so simple, Karen. Watch TV. Do anything, just stop cleaning the damn house!"

"Albert, I'm afraid. I've never done anything like this before."

Just as Albert happened to lift his gaze he caught Raul using an index finger to make small circles near his lips while mouthing some words.

Albert nodded in reply and held up a finger, intending it to mean one more minute.

"Listen, sweetheart, you're not 'doing' anything. I'm talking to you like a Dutch uncle because I want things to go smoothly--and they will, trust me. I care deeply for you, sweetheart."

"Do you, Albert? We've never talked much about 'us'. Do you suppose. . .?"

"Absolutely, sweetie. When we get to Vegas things'll seem a whole lot different, you'll see. I want the best for you and right now I want you to feel safe and secure. Call me the moment they leave, and if necessary, tell 'whoever' that they don't know who they're dealing with, and if you don't place a call within 20 minutes, they'll be standing in deep crap-ola."


Island View Lane
Bel Air
12:20 p.m.

"Couldn't I just say they'll be summoning the police? I saw that in a movie once."

"Fine, just say that then. But call me. . .that means within 20 minutes or everything's off and I'm sending in the Marines. I'm counting on you, sweetheart. Look, I've got to go. . .I can't stay on the phone. Talk to you in a bit. Bye."

She could tell that the phone had gone dead, but went ahead and said it anyway: "Bye. Love you."

Pocketing the phone, Karen walked to the front windows and moved the curtain aside. The white panel truck with the lettering "ABC Exterminators" was gone, and she'd seen no sign of the driver. Yet when Karen turned, there was a man, dressed completely in white, standing near the pass-thru--the spot she'd just vacated.

"Oh. . .no. No. . ." she stammered as she felt of the phone. "My. . .my husband. . .said you weren't to come inside. That is, we only want the. . .outside checked," then adding, "I. . .didn't think any of the doors were unlocked."

Then as Karen pulled out the phone and quickly pressed redial, the man swiftly crossed the distance between them and snatched it from her while at the same time grabbing her wrist and holding her hand up between their faces.

"Uh-h-h-h," Karen gasped as the white-suited man turned the phone in his hand and terminated the call.

With her face softening into an enigmatic smile, Karen blurted, "Albert. . .you're home! There must've been almost. . ." she began as her gaze shifted back and forth between his eyes,". . .no traffic. It seems like. . ." she continued haltingly, before switching thoughts. "What I mean is, you said you wouldn't be. . ."

"Coming home?" he finished for her.

"Yes. . .exactly," she replied, staring into his face.

"Well, darling, I. . .just couldn't stop thinking about you," he said, slowly lowering her hand, then releasing it. "Time itself. . .seems to lose all meaning when we're apart."

"I was beginning to think the same about you," she said with the look of a star-struck adolescent, then ending tenuously with, "darling."

"And now that we're together on this very special day, nothing can tear us apart--ever again. Look sweetheart," he continued as he turned her shoulders and began to redirect her attention using his awesome powers of invieglement. "It's an island paradise brought right to our doorstep."

She was mesmerized by the scene; the pastel blue parlor walls had become the azure blue ocean extending as far as the eye could see--off into infinity in all directions. A pair of tall and heavy floor lamps had grown into towering palm trees, while clumps of flowers had appeared where heaps of table linens had been left scattered.

The salty ocean fragrance blew free and clear as breezes tugged at her hair, drawing strands of gold past her nose and mouth. "It's simply beautiful," Karen cried aloud. "Yes, this must be Paradise," she went on

He took her hand as he led her down to the water's edge and began to speak of an old, old story. "You know, darling, in the Bible it's said that half-angels saw such beauty in the earthly women that they came down from Heaven to claim them as their own, and take them. Surely in was in a place as beautiful as this, and none could have been more beautiful than you, here in this oasis away from time."

He went on to explain that the spirit world is the true master of men, saying further that the fallen ones will mate with humans just as they do today until one day, roughly a thousand years from now, one woman will give birth to the penultimate power of the Universe--the antichrist.


Le Club
12:25 p.m.

Albert clicked off the phone just as Raul had started making moves like he was about to come over and retrieve it. Instead, Albert got quickly to his feet and walked toward the bartender with the phone extended in his hand.

"Thanks, man. What a life saver you are. I really appreciate it."

"I didn't mean to cut you short, Mr. Blakemore, except we're short a line, and the boss. . .well, you know."

Pulling a barstool into position, Albert continued to downplay the situation, saying, "No problem. . .all's taken care of."

"Uh-h, oh-h. Here comes your friend," Raul said, nodding toward the doors as a slender black man, looking to be in his late twenties or early thirties and carrying a large black leather bag on his shoulder, began walking toward the bar. "Until now, this was an estrogen-free zone."

Albert didn't need to look around. "Nah. It still is," he said, laying his club card on the bar and placing his keys on top. "Pour me a fresh one, will you?"

While the black man seemed to be heading toward the two men at the bar, he'd taken only six or seven paces before being hailed by another patron, a man sitting alone at a table next to the wall.

"Hey, look at that," Raul said. "Saved by the bell."

"Oh, I don't know," Albert replied, looking around finally as the black man sat quickly on the edge of the chair opposite his friend. "He's not such a bad person, really. He 'is somebody,' you know."

"Yeah, well everybody's 'somebody,' or they wouldn't be in here," the barkeep said as he pulled several glasses out of the rinse water and set them aside, then adding as he looked up with a quizzical expression, "Plays music somewhere--or used to. Ain't that how the story goes?"

"How about the L.A. Symphony Orchestra?. . .sound familiar?"

"Yeah, sorta," was the reply." But it's still all kind of freaky and shit, don't you think?"

"I think it is. . .for a lot of people," Albert said as he glanced at his watch, then removed it only to lay it on the bar in front of him.


Island View Lane
12:25 p.m.

"I'm sure the Sun feels wonderful on your skin, doesn't it, sweetheart?"

"Yes, wonderful," Karen replied, raising herself on her elbows as the lines of her brow and forehead began to deepen with apparent concern. "You know, there’s something that I'm supposed to remember."

"Just lie down and relax, my dear, and feel the warm sand on your back. Listen to the ocean. . .hear the waves as they ripple toward the shore. All care and worry is quickly disappearing here in our private beach garden."

In perfect symbiosis, one's insistence on the flesh was met with the other's burning for the soul in a pact that mortals have chosen to accept since before there was scripture. . .a carnal link between two realms--that of the divine and, through their half-human offspring, that of Divine's own creation--culminating in the triumph of spirit over bodymind.

"Darling," Karen said as she began to resist his initial attempt at loosening her clothing, "I remember now. I'm supposed to call you, and yet, you're here."

"That'll never change, my love," he said as her resistance to his advances became more vigorous.

He considered the possibility that for her the static apparition might be weakening, which would tend to complicate matters more than necessary.

"Let's go up to the veranda, sweetheart, where you'll feel more comfortable. You've probably had enough sun for today. . .don't you think?"


Le Club
12:27 p.m.

Raul noticed the watch immediately. "I've seen a lot of Rolexes," he said as he set Albert's drink on the bar in front of him. "But that's the nicest one yet. If I was you I'd be looking at it too."

"It's an older one. . .guess you noticed that."

"Yeah, but a vintage Pearl?. . .ruby dial and all? Wow, it's a real beauty, Mr. B. You've got it out like you're looking for a buyer. How much you asking?"

"Nah, this was a gift. I'd have to be pretty hard-pressed to sell it."

"How much?"

"Oh, I don't know. Three. . .three and a half."

Quickly wiping his hands, Raul picked up the watch and studied it, turning it over several times. "Are you kidding? I could sell this for five, maybe even six. I know a guy who collects Rolexes. His eyes would fall out of their sockets if he could see this."

"Well. . .it's got sentimental value," Albert replied as Raul handed it back. "But you'll be the first to know if I change my mind."

Then with orders starting to get heavy, Raul resumed his chores as Albert, after having slipped the watch back on his wrist, was left alone staring into his drink, elbows on the bar and holding onto his head with both hands.

"Al-bert," came a rather sweet-sounding voice as the slender young man with the black shoulder bag came up behind him. Then as Albert jerked upright and turned, the young man added, "You look 'ter-ri-ble' dear boy. What's the matter?"

Albert greeted him with some reserve, saying simply, "Hi, J. J. It's nothing, really. Just tired, I guess."

"Oh no. I'm not buying it. You, my brother, are having 'relationship' problems. . .spelled with a capital 'R' too, honey. I seen it way too many times for you to fool me."

Albert glanced at his watch. . .the fifteenth time within the same five minutes.

"Well. . .'dear boy,'" Albert said, matching J. J.'s tone to a 't,' "What to do about it--that's the real question. You can't leave them. . .they'll just follow you."

"Tell me about it, 'loverboy,'" J. J. replied, beginning to 'camp it up' a bit. "But lis-s-en. I know someone who solves these kinds of problems. . .permanently. And he guarantees that the 'problem' will never return."

"Well if he's the same one I know," Albert said, again checking his watch, "he's only interested in billionaires. . .millionaires need not apply," then adding, "But let me guess. It's the plot device you're using in your latest novel. Do I score a hit?"

"Right. . .'aown'. . .lover!" J. J. gushed in that funky, irrepressible street dialect. "You. . .are. . .good, you know that? You are just plain. . .good!"

"Look, J. J.," Albert said after a bit of laughter--more so over the humorous social situation than the joking itself-- "I'm really quite. . .preoccupied right now. I mean no offense, but. . ."

"I can see tha-a-t," J. J. whined in response. "And I'm being no help, either."

"Now, that's totally not true, my good friend. It's just something I'm not at liberty to discuss at the moment, and I'm not being very good company, I'm afraid."

"Well lis-s-en, honey. Before I go, you tell your billionaire lover to come around and see me sometime, y'hear?"

"Why, J. J. I had no idea you were a billionaire."

"I'm not. But I sho'nuf can show the man a good time."


Island View Lane
12:27 p.m.

The man had paid attention to Karen's comment concerning the expected telephone call, and had decided that it was time to move the agenda forward.

"There, darling, now isn't that a whole lot better?. . .the dappled shade, the comfortable Chaise lounge? Go ahead, sweetheart, and lie down."

He held her hand as Karen walked to the foot of what was actually a long white sectional situated near the fireplace. She said nothing as she stretched out along its length, seeming quite at ease.

"I'm going to go ahead and 'spritz' these plants--they look like they're in need of water," he said, while Karen simply nodded in apparent agreement.

"Meanwhile, I want you to just relax and feel all warm inside--a delicious warmth that spreads all down your spine. . .entering your arms and legs as the warmth continues right into your fingers and toes."

From hands that had been clasped across her stomach, she let her arms slide slowly down to her sides.

"You may feel at times, darling, like you're dreaming. But dreams in strange new places can often feel bizarre. The most common feeling is that of not being able to wake up, and because you know you're only dreaming, you'll also know that no harm can come to you."

Again, a reaction. . .a gentle nod and a short smile.

"I'll start with the plants on the balcony, okay?" he said as she nodded a second time. He then started toward the pass-thru where he'd left his spray canister. "I remember seeing how dry they looked."

It would have appeared to be just an ordinary tool of the trade in the termite business, but the canister contained a special concoction of chemicals, formulated to evaporate quickly while leaving behind a highly flammable residue.

"It'll only take a minute or two, sweetheart. Then after I've done all the plants in here I'll give you a great rub down."

He then bounded up the stairs where he came almost immediately to the doorway obstruction Albert had set up at the entrance to the master bedroom. Having seen two similar setups downstairs, the man was more bemused than surprised.

'It wouldn't have worked anyway, you idiot,' the man thought as he went straight for the draperies and gave them a thorough spraying.

The walk-in closet was open and the man spotted one of Albert's long, heavy overcoats. The man grabbed it and finished going over the walls and furniture with the wand machine. Then in leaving he again ducked under the ladder/platform supporting the home movie screen and finished his earlier thought by murmuring "They got caught in the movie, remember?"

Next were three other bedrooms where he quickly sprayed the walls, carpeting and hallway before leaving a trail on the stairway behind him.

"Sweetheart, I'm back," the man said as he stood over her. Karen simply opened her eyes, nodded and lifted a hand toward him--a hand that he didn't return. "The plants look so much better. . .better already." Then after pausing for just a few seconds. . . "This isn't really goodbye, my darling; it's more like auf Weidersehen--until we meet again. So until then," he said as he kissed her on the forehead, "sweet dreams, my dear. Don't get up. I'll let myself out."

He'd thought of everything, including shutting off the water main outside. The house went up like a Roman candle.


Le Club
12:43 p.m.

Albert had been staring at the watch, counting the seconds as they went by. 'That's it,' he thought as he grabbed his keys and after getting Raul's attention, started making small circles with his finger directly over his card.

He had no intention of waiting for an elevator, so he headed immediately for the stairs. Then running down the six flights, he suddenly thought that a casual, less hurried exit through the front doors would probably be for the best--appearance wise, anyway.

He slid behind the wheel and without even closing the door, reached immediately for the glove compartment to withdraw his cell phone, which should still work, he thought, on at least one number--9-1-1.

"9-1-1 Emergency. Give me your location, please."

"It's not my location that I'm worried about. I want to report a possible emergency at 788 Island View in Bel Air. I seem to be unable to. . ."

"There have already been several calls to that location, sir. Are you a resident in the area?"

"You could say that. I happen to live at that address, 788 Island View Lane. I strongly doubt. . ."

"May I have your name, sir, and have you called 9-1-1 earlier?

Forced into shock, Albert had to pause for several seconds, trying to regain his bearings. For those several moments, however, all he could do was hold the phone in his lap while the operator continued to flap instructions at him. Finally he simply clicked off and returned the phone to the glove compartment.

Next he drove two blocks to a convenience store and squealed to a stop in front of a pay phone. Strangely enough, he thought, it was available and working.

"You have reached the private number of Karen Whispers. Please leave a message. . ."

Hanging up quickly--maybe even violently--Albert swore softly just under his breath. He then reasoned that there was only one remaining option.


Island View Lane
12:55 p.m.

The narrow winding road had been choked with traffic. Anyone standing on the scene would have heard distant sirens gaining strength--rapidly--as paramedics tried to weave their way through a kaleidoscopic array of vehicles. With two engine companies on site, local law enforcement seemed to be arriving en masse while sending local residents and a FedEx truck onto neighboring lawns. A traffic chopper was overhead, and farther back in the parade was a news van vying for prime viewing location in a very limited arena.

"Number two! The front is hot!. . .repeat. . .no entrance through the front! Neighbor on scene heard screams. Send evac crew to the rear--also the garage! She's critical. . .repeat, critical! Cave-ins likely! "

Closer to the scene, gear was flying. Men were grabbing axes as yellow suits had begun to surround the house. Jake Dekkard was the first crew member to reach the rear area.

"It's holy hell back here," he shouted as he reached for the garage access door, which was cool, but locked. "Hose brigade!. . .in here!" Jake continued as with a mighty swing of the ax the lockset shattered along with a large chunk of the door as well.

"Go, go, go, go," Jake chanted, helping see to it that there were no kinks in the hose as the crew rushed by. "Get retardant on these walls and rafters," he commanded into his headset. "We'll be coming out the same way."

The garage had two vehicle stalls and both were empty. Otherwise, the space was jam-packed with the usual garage stuff. The interior doorway was next, and there the crew found something macabre indeed--a clever door jammer. It was a piece of sheet metal formed into a square-shaped "S". . .slipped between the jamb and the door as it was being closed, thus preventing the door from being opened from either side.

"Tear it off the hinges," Jake said. "CSI ought to be more than interested in this," then adding, "Get ready for smoke."

There was smoke, but it could've been worse. The kitchen ceiling was smoking but not yet in flames. The same could not be said for the floor above, which was obviously hotter than a firecracker.

They proceeded behind a wall of water, both for immediate protection and to help cool the structure, which, according to theory, would also lengthen their staying time.

"How long, Captain," one of the men asked, as Jake, shaking his head, surveyed the ceiling. "Three minutes. . .maybe four," he replied.

A few steps further and a turn to the left, however, brought a halt to the procession. "Get the stretcher up here," Jake said. "One to bring out, and that's it. Gentlemen. . .we're out of time."

They quickly searched the kitchen looking for others--children, especially, who may have crawled into cupboards, cabinets, and even the refrigerator. They found nothing beyond the one victim, most of the clothing on who had been burned away.


Sunset Boulevard
12:55 p.m.

Traffic in Albert's mind was always the worst, but traffic with sirens going off spelled 'nightmare' in his lexicon. The back way into the hills was sometimes quicker, but not always. So whether to go past the gate entrance into Bel Air or not--that was the question, forcing him into another of those "split-second decisions" that he'd become so famous for. So. . .he turned, knowing that he'd probably regret it.

He'd no sooner turned before he was regretting it. There were flashing lights and sirens behind him, resulting in a queasy, uneasy feeling he hadn't had up until then.

The first patrol car went around him, but the second one didn't. After cutting his siren, the officer was giving Albert the flashing headlights and the loudspeaker instructing him to pull over.

"The road is closing, sir," the officer said as Albert finished rolling down the window. "Are you a resident of the area?"

"Yes, I am."

"Well, I'm sorry, sir, but we're temporarily closing all roads leading in and out of Bel Air, even for residents. We're very sorry for the inconvenience, but it'll only be until around 5:00 this afternoon. Are you in the higher up area?"

"That's right. . .788 Island View."

The officer seemed mildly surprised, taking out his notebook and taking several seconds to page through it.

"Are you Albert Blakemore?"

Albert's heart had suddenly leapt into his throat. "Uh-h-h. . .what exactly seems to be the problem, officer."

"Can I see some identification, sir?"

After placing Albert's license on a clipboard, the officer continued writing in his notebook. "Please sit tight for the time being, Mr. Blakemore. I only need to run a verification check," said the officer as he turned and started toward the cruiser.

"But. . .I'm owed some explanation," Albert began, but was cut off.

"I'll be back, sir. Just sit tight and when I return you can ask any questions you may have."


Le Club
1:00 p.m.

"Hey guys, check out the fire in Bel Air," someone yelled.

"Jesus Christ, that son of a bitch is really going to town," said a guy standing near the end of the bar. "Glad it ain't my house, I'll tell you that."

"What street's it on," said a guy with a cue in his hand as he rushed in from the adjacent billiards room.

"We just tuned in. . .haven't heard yet," said Raul, the barkeep.

A crowd was quickly gathering. Given Le Club's Sunset Boulevard location not far from the neighborhoods of Brentwood/Bel Air, there was a great deal of concern, and it was growing rapidly.

"It's up farther. . .streets tend to wind, all pretty much look alike," said the guy sitting closest to the screen. "Someone should go find Albert," he added.

"Are you serious?" Raul asked with a heavy dose of disbelief in his voice. "He was just here, but I checked him out and I'm pretty sure he left."

"When was that?"

"Oh, ten. . .fifteen minutes, I guess. You don't think that's his house, do you?"

"I think that's his street. I don't know which house, though."

Suddenly there was a chorus of moans coming from the dozen or so men who had gathered.

"We have confirmation, now on your screen, that one individual has been pulled from the blaze and is being brought out by the fire crew--covered, as you see," was the grim announcement coming over the air. "Again, one person is being brought out. . .the body covered--although we don't have confirmation as to whether a fatality or not--in this residential fire on Island View Lane in Bel Air."


Bell Avenue--Bel Air
1:01 p.m.

Albert got the news while sitting in his car from the most technologically up-to-date piece of equipment in it--the AM radio/FM stereo/C-D player. When the police officer returned to the side of Albert's car, he was slumped over the steering wheel, crying.

"Mr. Blakemore. . .I'm sorry, sir. I must tell you that the location you gave as your residence is being treated as a crime scene."

The officer opened the driver's door and for about 10 seconds, observed the condition of the occupant while assessing any potential threats coming from inside the car as Albert continued to sob uncontrollably.

"I'm taking you into custody, Mr. Blakemore, as a 'person of interest' in a case of arson and at least one homicide. . .an individual also believed to be a resident at that location."

Albert hadn't heard the word 'homicide' up to that point. And when he did, he reacted violently, slumping to the side where a door should have been while throwing up at the same time. The officer stepped back, and as Albert lay on the ground in a dead faint, he'd begun to choke on his own vomitus.

The officer seemed relatively inexperienced in handling such matters. He reached for his handcuffs and was beginning to pull Albert's wrists together, practically ignoring the fact that the man had all but stopped breathing. But not before yet another car had turned off Sunset and onto Bell Avenue--the driver being the police commissioner, of all people.

Having had 200 feet or so in which to observe part of what happened just before pulling up behind the squad, the commish barely gave his vehicle time to stop before jumping out and yelling, "What's going on here?"

Then at almost the same time, a patrolman who had been 'on scene' crossed over and stopped. The second officer rushed forward, quickly pulling his rookie compatriot to the side. "This man's choking to death! Get him on his stomach!" Then as the two worked together to get Albert in the correct prone position, the second officer said, "He's not breathing."

The commish grabbed the rookie's walkie-talkie and blared into it.

"This is Commissioner Craig. We need medical backup down near the gate, and we need it immediately!"

Amazingly, it was the old 'Boy Scout' technique of artificial respiration--"out with the bad air, in with the good"--that provided the needful operations in those few minutes before the medics arrived. Then with Albert on his ride to the ER and with Officer #1 in tow, it was clear that the commissioner was about to take a strong personal interest in the case.

"Excellent work, Officer Jeremy. . .fine job," said the commish as he extended his hand. "I'll be sure to see that you're put up for commendation."

The officer voiced his appreciation, then began bringing the commissioner up to date on a few facts turned up during the earliest phase of the investigation.

"A black overcoat," the officer said, "was found about 1000 yards from the house, having the monogrammed initials, 'AOB,' which would be consistent with our person of interest--Albert Orion Blakemore."

The commish, looking thoughtful with chin in hand, nodded, then replied, "It could have been taken by an intruder, of course. . .with the intention of being found by investigators."

"Oh, no doubt," Officer Jeremy said. "But depending upon how it was worn--if it was worn. . ."

"Exactly. And what about the other item?"

"Well, sir, this is a strange one. There was a 9-1-1 call--reportedly having come from Mr. Blakemore--well 'after' all other calls. If true, then Mr. Blakemore was at that time not aware of the actual emergency already in progress."

"How long ago?"

"I'd say. . .fifteen minutes. It's almost like he was 'predicting' an event that he expected to take place, only later."

"Okay. . .okay," the commish said, nodding again. "That could mean something. Conspiracy, maybe. Wow, I see a lot of lawyers. . .a lot of media. . .this one's going to drag and drag, I'm afraid."

"Yeah," said Officer Jeremy as he turned toward his vehicle. "And the media's up there, too, sir--already. Hope you've got your flak suit on!"

"Are you kidding?" replied the commish, grinning broadly. "I've never been able to take it off. . .not since I've had this job."

Something, though, caught the commissioner's eye as he was backing away from Albert's car. . .some cloth-covered items laying on the back seat. He decided to take a closer look.

The commish gently pulled up a corner of the cloth, then lifted the first of two art masterworks by Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec into the light. As he did, his eyes became as big as saucers.

"Sweet Mother of Jesus," he said, crossing himself after carefully replacing the second painting. "What in the name of heaven do we have here?"





------
Fritzwilliam


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