From the Novel
Do You Have a Marriageable Mother?
“Fated or Mated” – November First 2017
“Break-In to a Heart Break” – December First 2017
“Death By Fork” – December Fifteenth 2017
“Shut Out” – January First 2018
“Crisis Counseling” – February First 2018
“Chocolate Killer” – March First 2018
Coming soon: “Day of the Maggots” – March 15th, 2018
Some Adult Language Used
Bebe took another hit from his flask and rubbed his eyes. He wasn’t as drunk as he wanted to be. He needed another hour to bring the blackness. He wanted to dispel the shadows, familiar but not. The spirits had dogged him ever since the widow with a gun named Waldo had chased him and Ryan from the grief counseling session. The shadows had followed him home and now to his office. What did they want? He’d be happy to gift wrap their quest for them.
He was fifty. Old and crippled. He couldn’t play ball now. What use was he?
Fer gawd’s sake, I need something to do. Don’t make me sit here and think.
He checked for messages, found none, and rediscovered he had zippo to do. The staff did their tasks as they should: taking orders, filling the route trucks, sending invoices, ordering replacement inventory, and keeping the books. What did they leave for the boss? He could wander around disturbing them or he could polish his football trophies. He cried for something more to do than re-shine his past.
Who were the shadows? Were they related to his late wives? Ryan, his buddy and fellow survivor of the widow’s showdown at Abernathy Memorial, was haunted by his wife’s ghost. He and she conversed. They spiritually hugged each other. They were friends in and beyond life.
Bebe wished for the same: comradeship, understanding, relief of pain.
Marcy had married him and stayed with him through the glory years when he played pro football. He led the league in tackles. He also boasted of the most women, alcohol, and body pain. Marcy had convinced him to retire early. She’d probably extended his life—something he now regretted. He hadn’t known he’d loved her until after she’d died. His infidelities haunted him. Every sin came back magnified to nail him. He wanted more than living to bring her back and relive the nasty parts in a better way.
Valerie had seen him limping at his club’s pool and asked if he knew his foot was the wrong color. He didn’t. He discovered diabetes. And gangrene. And amputation. He wrote off half-a-foot and entered a whirlwind courtship. He behaved this time. No women. No booze. Diet control. Diabetes control. He loved Val. She loved him. Then she died, and his world went to shit.
Now he owned a beer distributorship and an empty home. He was a glorified ex-jock with more money than should be legal and living in a world with available women waiting for a call. He wanted more. He thought about joining Ryan and catching the Cardiac Express, but he was still too healthy—Valerie’s influence.
Bebe popped open a beer from his office fridge. Why not have beer in his office? Every job should have a perk or two. He also had pints hidden inside his trophies.
He pulled a bottle out of a two-handed winner’s cup. This trophy honored a dominoes championship on his second pro team. He had lots of trophies. Most of them real. A former teammate had more, so he’d padded his total at a mall. You can manufacture any recognition at the trophy store—most tackles, most sacks, most generous, biggest ego.
What if he and Ryan had lost the big chase under the hospital? Would anyone miss him if Shirley had clobbered him with her .32 caliber pistol? Certainly not his sons who were still upset over his girlfriends while he was married to their mother.
He was toasted, not yet roasted. His leg throbbed. His missing toes groaned. So did the shadows—sounding more like harpies than benevolent ghosts. He sampled a new beer. He alternated sips from a pint. No help.
Chords from a pipe organ—something created in the basement of an ancient cathedral—permeated his head. “You’re a lying cheat.” The words crested on the music.
Finally—a conversation. Would he pursue a relationship like Ryan and Janet—untouchable but loving? The shadows circled his desk.
The pipe organ went up and down the scales. The voices sounded slightly feminine. “You cheated on your wives.”
Bebe held his head and summoned excuses. “Only one of them. I was true to Valerie.”
“So you say. We won’t know for sure until you die or we do.”
“All the guys on the team had extra women. They came with the job.” They did. By the dozens.
“What a dirtbag.”
The shadows drifted into the light, heads only. He identified Holly and Louise, Valerie’s younger sisters. Twins who played the little-girl game of dressing alike to confuse others. Twins who hated him. Their dislike was fine with him because he hadn’t wasted any love on them. Now he had a focus for his demons. “Why can I see you? You’re alive across town.”
Holly spoke first. “You’re half-right. We’re alive but we’re not sure you are.”
Bebe expected snottiness and he felt better for her impudence. We’re talking. Take a chance and ask what I don’t know. Are they real? So what if they’re not?
“If Ryan can see his wife’s ghost, why can’t I see Valerie?”
The heads spun around each other, coming to a stop with Louise closest and speaking. “You are unworthy. Val’s at peace. Don’t violate her.”
This ain’t real. Should I call Ryan and tell him the not-dead-yet have arrived to mess with me? Or do I deal with these broads as my punishment?
Bebe chose to deal with the women. “I loved Val. Bring her back.”
Holly again. “You must have cheated on her. Infidelity is your nature. We won’t know for sure until we die. Or you do.”
The evil twins were right and wrong. He didn’t cheat on Valerie. Only on Marcy and that was before the twins’ time and shouldn’t count. Marcy died, and he stopped calling women. Guilt ground his head. His sons knew about his behavior and remained distant. He married Valerie and remained faithful. No one noticed.
An outburst of voices carried from the lobby. Real life superseded his paranormal moment. The twins and the music vanished. The pain didn’t.
Lacey Turner, his receptionist, paged, “Mr. Whatcom, please come to the front desk, now.” Mr. Whatcom? Lacey had never addressed him so formally. Her voice held an edge for the first time in months. Had the Prohibition League selected his company as the first target in their new drive? Maybe the league didn’t exist and he should start one to give him an adversary to fill in dead time.
Wake up. Sober up. Help Lacey.
Duty propelled him out the door, suddenly semi-sober. Bebe limped up the hall and through another door to the lobby. He saw the problem at once: Shirley, wearing a camouflage windbreaker with a black armband stood on the far side of the counter from Lacey. Her open windbreaker revealed a blue denim shirt and a utility belt. The utility belt might have held lipstick and bubblegum but all Bebe paid attention to was Waldo, prominently holstered. The gun looked like an automatic with a clip in the grip. The black armband told him Shirley was either in mourning or on a mission of retribution.
The counter held boxes of chocolates and display pictures of beer trucks. The chocolate had been Valerie’s. Lacey was dressed in office slacks and a knitted sweater with a picture of kittens. She was at least fifteen years younger than the commando but held her ground.
If we both live through this encounter, Lacey, I will reward you. Somehow.
Shirley caressed Waldo’s handle and squinted at him with a twisted smile. She lifted and lowered the handgun slowly, replacing it in the holster in a manner almost sexual. Her smile disappeared and her eyebrows lowered.
Go on! Go on! Do it! End this!
The organ’s notes returned, low and ominous. Louise chanted in a sing-song. “Kill him. Kill him. Kill him now!”
Is this what life’s like for Ryan—tormented by unseen beings? But these shadows aren’t related to Ryan’s Janet. And the spirits’ owners are alive somewhere in town and planning attack.
Bebe put his hand on Lacey’s shoulder from behind. She trembled invisibly. His six-five towered over her five-five. “Lacey, go to shipping and page the building with a fire drill. Send everybody home.”
“Okay.” She didn’t break off her defiant stance.
Bebe took Lacey’s other shoulder and turned her toward the warehouse door. “Don’t call the cops.”
Why no cops? Shirley’s dangerous. Crazy. She wants to kill.
Lacey and Shirley each stared at Bebe.
The music rose and fell. The twins sounded off. “Good job. Now man-up for once. If this is your final roll call, goodbye and good riddance.” Their duet disconcerted him more than Waldo.
“Shirley and I are old friends. Ya hear me?” Bebe wondered if his problems might be resolved in the next five minutes. He’d wanted to fill his dead time and now he might have lots available.
Help the living—you’ve been dead since Val left.
Bebe nudged, and Lacey walked with deliberate speed to the warehouse—like a cat who had to obey but knew the upper limit of insolence it could bestow. She would not show cowardice while retreating from Shirley. Lacey hadn’t flinched from Shirley.
Lacey’s got guts. She won’t quit. Is that why I’m successful—the office is all propping me up? I’m a waste of good spit.
Lacey’s page came quickly. “Linebacker says take the rest of the day off. Come back tomorrow and bring a pot-luck lunch. Now scram.”
The organ played a few playful notes from Heartbreak Hotel. Holly delivered more tripe. “Now, bozo, it’s just you and Shirley and your good manners. Except you don’t have any.”
Why can’t I be haunted by a real ghost who loves me? I’ve always traveled first-class. I deserve better.
Bebe carefully assembled words for Shirley and tossed them out like a throw-away line. “Okay, Babe, it’s jus’ you and me. Give me your best shot.”
Shirley lifted Waldo an inch and let him drop. “I have a permit to pack a concealed weapon, in case you’re wondering.”
I don’t really care, ma’am. Do what you came here for. “So, where’s your head at today?”
Ask not, find out not.
Shirley shuffled three of the chocolates boxes on the counter. Bebe had discovered Valerie’s monster-horde of chocolate hidden in their large home. He insisted all visitors to his business leave with at least one box—two or more if they expected a purchase order.
Can I buy Shirley off with chocolate?
More anxious music. Who was the scariest organist—The Phantom or Vincent Price?
“Buy her off? With chocolate? Give her some respect.” No sympathy from Holly. The music stopped.
Shirley restacked the boxes and addressed Bebe. “What do you mean, where’s my head? It’s on my neck. Where’s yours?”
Yeah, let’s make small talk while you decide whether to kill me.
Bebe spoke to delay execution. “You’ve been Floyd’s widow how long?”
I know the answer. Does she?
Shirley rubbed her face and mumbled through her hands. “Four days.”
A lifetime for the newly bereaved. She’s living alone in a house and regretting the mean things she told Floyd.
Music returned in a crescendo. So did Louise. “Are you picking on this nice lady? Don’t.” Orders from this side of the grave.
Ignore Louise. Ask Shirley until she answers. “How are you?”
Shirley twirled Waldo and holstered. “Messy.”
Bebe let out his breath. Death threats were sobering—like the night with Ryan in the chambers under the hospital. He’d emptied his flask under duress that night. And his bladder.
I remember. I remember how I felt the first night at home without Val. Drunk driver. Sudden death. Rage. Futile rage. He knew what to ask Shirley. “Are you mad? Sick? Feeling guilty?”
Shirley pushed chocolate around. “How did you know?”
I gotta pee, and I don’t wanna die in wet pants.
The organ played a doleful chord. “Dry pants are okay, too.” Louise dropped her advice above sounds of laughter. And hiccups.
My spirits are drinking.
Holly jumped in with fury. “We agreed to take turns, stupid sister. You’ve gone twice in a row.”
Louise managed to sound like an offended three-year-old. “You cheated first, sis.”
My spirits might be mean when drunk. They’re bad enough sober
Bebe got his head back into Shirley’s question about feelings. “How do I know how you feel? Been there. Am there. Join the club.”
“I’m horny and feeling guilty as hell.”
Horny? Hell of a time for a mood swing, lady.
Bebe tried disarming her with facts. “You told Pamela you were leaving on a hike.”
Shirley reached back and rubbed her neck. Sort of sexy. “I changed my mind. It’s not fair.”
Bebe had problems following normal conversations and Shirley was changing topics without notice. “What’s not fair?”
The organ interrupted. So did Holly. This must be her turn to jab. “You want a list? You got paid a fortune for playing a silly game you’d have done for free while the rest of us waited tables for crappy tips.” The twins weren’t leaving quietly.
Shirley had her own lament, almost acceptable. “I met three men Thursday night who loved and lost their wives. Why couldn’t I have had one like that?”
Maybe you did, Shirley, but I got a bigger problem. Which is worse—confronting death or facing humiliation from publicly wetting my pants? The second time in a week. Too much beer. Or not enough. “How do you know Floyd didn’t love you?”
Shirley licked her gun butt. “Because he shagged my sister.”
Why’d Shirley lick Waldo? What else does she lick? Why is love mostly out of sight?
Shirley ripped the lid off a Valentine’s sampler and slammed the candy face down on the countertop. She lifted the box, leaving the sweets bottom-side-up and arranged like a heart. She gripped Waldo by the barrel and smashed his butt down on a piece. The chocolate exploded across the shiny surface. Caramel.
Bebe smelled sugar and gun oil. And urine. His. He was filling his shoe.
The organ played a funeral dirge with the low keys and Happy Days Are Here Again with the high ones. Holly offered backhanded advice. “We knew you’d wet yourself in a crisis.” The twins left with a pop. He couldn’t feel their presence.
Where in hell is this music coming from? My head? I haven’t given pipe organs five minutes thought in my life. He addressed Shirley. “How’d you find me?”
Waldo leveled another chocolate. Cherry. “Easy. You’re a celebrity.”
Asking Shirley questions, maybe I’ll learn about women before I die.
“I’ve thought about joining my late wife.”
Shirley licked her gun butt again.
Alcohol and stress contributed to Bebe’s conversation. “Looks delicious, babe. Can I have a swipe?”
Shirley switched mental tracks again. “Is the furry one a nut case like you?”
Ryan? Furry? Looks normal to me. “Don’t get your hopes up. When the time comes, I want my exit to be my choice, not yours. Ya hear me?”
Bebe followed up, concerned for his buddy. “And Ryan?”
Waldo brought an end to another chocolate, something brown, making the countertop a sticky disaster. “He’s sexy. I want to grab a handful of that barbarian’s hair and wash my face with it. And those split pants: sexy. I want to rip them off him. And what’s in that backpack?”
Do not tell her about Janet’s urn. “What do you think?”
“A bearskin rug to take me on.”
“So why aren’t you screwing up his counter?
“Too many Ryan’s. I can’t find him.”
Bebe repeated a question Pamela the counselor had asked Shirley in the hospital morgue. Maybe she’d give a better answer. “And when you find Ryan, are you going to shoot him or shag him?”
“I don’t know yet. I change my mind every hour, but I’ll do one or the other, maybe both.”
“You said Waldo can put out a man’s eye at thirty paces.”
Shirley reversed her grip on the gun, holding it by the handle and pointing it at the ceiling. Chocolate oozed between her fingers. “He can. So can I.”
Bebe jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “See that butt-ugly clock back there? A customer’s daughter made it and he foisted the damn thing off on me. Ya hear me?”
“If I put ten slugs through that sucker, you can take it down?”
“Nope, I’ll leave it up as a tribute to art critics everywhere.”
If I stand close to the counter and her she won’t see my wet pants.
Bebe stood as still as a corpse as Shirley took aim.
At six, Tom Snethen wrote stories about space ships and ray guns and Martian houses—never dreaming he’d get self-flushing toilets someday. Now he’s an Oregonian writing about the saints and scoundrels he met in a career as a manufacturing chemist. His nonfiction ranges from throwing a flaming mattress out a brothel window as a volunteer fireman to borrowing a bank robber with needed skills from the penitentiary. He has written about being a widower at fifty—alone and scared. He lives to incinerate stale stereotypes—whether about industrial chemistry or the pursuit of happiness for men accidentally single.