Spec-s coming to HTX after all


It looks like Spec’s Liquor Store is coming to Huntsville — and without a handout from Huntsville taxpayers.

Word of this was in your local newspaper September 24-26. Not on the front page where there ain’t no more news, but back in the Classifieds section under the Legals. According to the legal notices, Spec’s Family Partners, Ltd. has filed an application for an off-premise retail liquor store to be located between Target and Wal-Mart.

That’s good news for everyone who was driving to the Spec’s in Conroe to buy alcohol, and bad news — maybe — for Huntsville’s locally owned liquor stores, who might struggle to compete with the retail giant.

But it’s an “I told you so” for those of us who argued last July against giving the developer of a strip center to include Spec’s about $350,000 in tax breaks over five years through a Chapter 380 agreement.

Dallas developer Jeff Brand told Huntsville City Council on July 15 that he couldn’t come without the 380 deal — it costs as much to build here as it does in Big D, but rents are too low here to make a profit. And he needed compensation for the site prep he would have to do to fix Huntsville’s lousy, retail-hating soil.

Council was sure as hell going to give it to him, too, even after Dave Mulligan of Lone Star Liquor and Draft Bar owner and local developer Tarek Maalouf spoke out against it. They urged council not to use tax dollars to give out-of-town retailers an advantage over the homegrown businesses that had invested in Huntsville without the help of public funds.

Council may not have been moved by their pleas, but the developer was. Or maybe Brand was scared off by a full-page ad in the Item, taken out by Voters for Lower Taxes, with a nasty cartoon of councilmen Keith Olson and Don Johnson serving up Huntsville’s Mom and Pop businesses to economic cannibals. (Did you see that cartoon? Didn’t anybody catch that Johnson had “Johnson” over his johnson?) Brand pulled his request from the council agenda before the August 5 second reading of the agreement.

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Haven’t we been telling you that retailers will come without tax giveaways if they think they can make it here? So why is council so eager to write checks with your money?

Maybe, as some rumors suggest, they’re recruiting retailers, trying to stuff money in their pockets that these retailers didn’t ask for and don’t even need. Maybe a big pot of money marked for retail incentives is the driving force behind the accumulation of a $20 million surplus they’re sitting on right now.

Who would benefit from that? Retailers, of course. But also local landowners, contractors, investors, and City Councilmen who want to keep their seats on the dais. If they try to tell you you’re going to benefit, too, now you know better. It must have really pissed off Olson and Johnson, both running for re-election in November, when Brand walked away from our free money.

Even after Spec’s opens here, I’ll keep buying the vodka and kahlúa for my White Russians at Lone Star Liquor Store. But I’m glad Spec’s is coming to Huntsville. Because I love saying I told you so.


WCAD letter gets Russell banned from Item

press puppetYou can’t read it in the Huntsville Item, but you can read it here: George Russell fights back against the Walker County Appraisal District, which he accuses of jacking up his property values as punishment for decades of speaking truth to power.  

But why was this letter, with more facts and less personalized snark, the last straw? The Big Mashugana says the Item rejected it (and all future letters) under pressure of the Movers and Shakers, some of whom — like City Councilman Don Johnson — have already been influential in pulling thousands of dollars of advertising from the Item when an editorial decision did not go their way. (Remember the banner headline article on the arrest of HMH marketing director and “Baby CEO” Calli Dretke on felony charges of intoxicated assault of a police officer?)

You also remember that under Publisher Rex Maynor and Editor Jay Ermis many citizens who held views in opposition to the Establishment had their letters shit-canned or hopelessly mangled when finally printed on the Item’s “Opinion” Page.

Things got more First Amendment-like under Dennis Garrison and Amy Lee, with Lisa Trow as editor, but the Item’s parent company sent both publishers packing, rumor has it, when Item revenue was not up to snuff.

Current Publisher Rita Haldeman, the third in four years, at first agreed to keep running George’s letters, but only after they had been sanitized of nastiness and ranting that were, maybe in the Item’s view, beside George’s central point. Never mind that his letters met the paper’s policy guidelines, which, under Rita and new editor Tom Waddill, have become scrambled and capriciously enforced. Rita may have either taken a page out of Rex’s book — we’ll see what happens to letters by more temperate opposition writers — or she’s come to the conclusion that George is just bad for business as well as her career. In any case, if what George is saying is true, the WCAD plays a slippery but integral role in an unethical scheme to keep The Powers That Be in power in HTX.

— Fractal Bob


12 September 2014
To: Editor, Huntsville ITEM


County Auditor Patricia Allen is quoted in the 8 September 2014 ITEM as stating: “Even though the tax rate has gone down, we will collect more revenue this year.”

This is part of the smoke and mirrors game played by local officials who are under the gun for promoting specious projects and wasteful spending causing significant tax increases over the last few years.

There have recently been more than one ITEM story that would make the average citizen believe that the city and county are holding the line on or even lowering property taxes when in fact by artificially increasing property values well beyond reality, many citizens’ taxes are rising astronomically.

I recently returned from a CAD protest hearing to ask that the millionaires and billionaires be taxed at the same rate as the poor and middle class for the same kinds of land in the same neighborhoods.

Of course my request was met with deaf ears and the unanimous vote of the board was to keep the insane increases of up to 300% in one year the same and to continue to allow even more valuable properties owned by the ultra wealthy to be taxed at a much lower rate per acre or per square foot.

It wasn’t the increases that I was protesting but the lack of fairness and equality. I told the board that if the uber-rich would be assessed at the same rate as me, then there would not have been any protest from me at all.

My dear friend Rich Heiland asserts that investing in property in Elkins Lake is a sound investment because it holds its value, yet Elkins lots over the years have featured prominently in tax sales, and now an effort is underfoot to give some 38 lots away for free, even though they are allegedly worth between $2,000 and $4,000 each.

Back some years ago Rich lived in the Russellville “slums” in a former whorehouse at 1509 19th Street. Last year the CAD appraised the tiny hillside lot at $10,000, and we just received notice that it is now being taxed at a value of $20,000 compared to the CAD appraisal of Heiland’s Elkins Lake lot at $3,000.

I am not hereby attempting to make fun of Heiland’s assertions about property values holding their own at Elkins because they cannot possibly go much lower in value. My main focus is on the very real fact that the CAD has gone totally berserk in violating the very essence of Title 1 of the Texas Property Tax Code and seems to be targeting some of us who are obviously on some kind of “black list.”

We received notices that 12 of our rent house lots in “Russellville” suddenly increased in value from $142,000 or $11,833 each in 2013 to $277,000 or $23,083 each in 2014.

Our postage stamp sized lot at 1822 Avenue O suddenly skyrocketed from its 2013 CAD evaluation of $6,500 or 58 cents a square foot or $25,508 an acre which is about right to $20,000 or $1.75 a square foot or $76,420 an acre.

Mayor Mac’s lovely lot adjacent to the Raven’s Nest Golf Course was appraised at only fifty cents a foot or $17,030 an acre and the entire commercial city block surrounded by Avenue O, Avenue P and 14th and 15th Streets owned by another family member is being taxed based on a valuation of $26,666 an acre.

One of the most valuable undeveloped commercial acreages in Huntsville borders Normal Park on the west and three of our deed restricted rent houses on the east.

The tax-exempt TRA lot that was sold off from this same tract is fairly valued at $2.00 per square foot, whereas the remainder of the tract is valued at between $6,417 and $21,776 per acre depending on whether one chooses to believe that the large tract is only 4.18 acres or actually 14.18 acres.

Appraisals are supposed to be fair and not discriminate against unpopular citizens while rewarding popular citizens with appropriate appraisals. Last year we purchased an abandoned building on University Avenue. We had a terrible time locating any tenant at all due to its obsolescence as a former bank drive-through, and suddenly the CAD decided that it was worth far more than we had paid for it bidding in a nationwide auction and more than it was appraised at as a drive-through of the multi-billion dollar Bank of America.

It remained empty for several months while we searched for a tenant, but it was no longer considered viable as a bank, and so we finally found some nice people, who rented it for a karate studio, that can pay around $1,000 per month while the property taxes are $9,524!!! When we proved the actual value of the building to the CAD, the true facts were totally ignored, and we have had to resort to suing the CAD at considerable personal expense.

The Gibbs Shopping Center that borders our building we finally leased to a karate studio is assessed based on $32.38 per square foot for the buildings and $2.00 a square foot for the land, whereas our building is assessed for taxes based on $69.11 per square foot and the land at $2.50 a square foot.

Of course, we are not the only citizens whose taxes have skyrocketed for no legitimate reason other than the apparent fact that our city has so many millions of dollars in debt that to pay the debts off, taxes have been outrageously increased in an unfair arbitrary and capricious manner in egregious violation of the professional code of ethics that appraisers are supposed to be bound by.

And to add insult to injury, the School Board is once again attempting to concoct a scheme to pass a bond issue that will cause even more escalations in our property taxes.

Enough is enough, especially considering the fact that there is no such thing as private property ownership in America. When you have paid your mortgage off after 30 years of scrimping and saving, you still have to pay rent to the government for the right to live in your own home, or they will auction it off on the courthouse steps. Is this America or some Third World Communist Country where the State owns all property?



The Education of Keith Olson



Dad and I sat in front of the TV upstairs on Sept. 16, Budget-Passing Day, to watch the Huntsville City Council take up a surprise agenda item on the council’s travel budget by none other than Keith Olson.

“This should be good,” my father said. “I can’t wait to see how this moron justifies flying his private plane to aviation conventions on the taxpayer’s dime.”

I sipped my single malt Scotch. Wait for it.

“What did you say about Keith?” my mother yelled from downstairs.

“That he can’t wait to see what a fool he makes of himself tonight,” I yelled back.

“Well, you’re in for a surprise then,” she yelled back. “They have proof that Dalene Zender was all wrong.”

“Whatever,” my father muttered, but I was nervous because no matter how well researched Zender’s Sept. 9 guest column was, these assholes are not above manufacturing and spinning the “evidence.”

“Don’t worry, Bob,” Dad said. “It’s Olson. He’ll fuck it up like he always does. Remember the last meeting?”

“Yeah, he proved he wasn’t smarter than a fifth grader,” I said.

My mother was at the foot of the stairs again. “If I’d asked you last week what 16.67 percent of 12 was, could you tell me off the top of your head?”

“I’m not the council finance committee chairman running for re-election,” I yelled back. “Plus you don’t play J. Edgar Hoover with a citizen unless you have your facts straight.”

“Well, Karl Davidson deserved it,” my mother yelled. “He was using a public hearing to campaign against Don Johnson.”

“Why don’t you stop yelling and come up here,” my father yelled. “You’re killing our buzz.”

“Keith Olson is about to do that,” she yelled back. “You don’t need me.”

Then Olson opened his can of whup ass on Dalene Zender and all the citizens and fellow council members who called into question his taxpayer-funded trips to luxury hotels in the pursuit of an education. The big reveal was a chart showing council travel budgets vs. actual travel spending from 2005 to 2014.

“Mom,” I yelled, “Olson’s chart showing that Dalene was wrong is jacked up. It shows her council reduced spending like she said and that Olson’s travel put them over budget for three out of the past four years.”

“It does not,” my mother yelled. “Olson would have noticed that before the meeting.”

“He must have missed it. But luckily some nice citizen spectators shouted it out to him.”

“Shit,” I heard my mom say.

Then Olson, Mayor Mac and Tish Humphrey argued passionately about the need for Olson to go to conventions to get fresh ideas and to make him more like Don Johnson. In return, he said, he’d come back with $30 million in TxDOT funding.

“Don’t you wish Olson knew how state funding works?” said my dad. “Take it from me. It doesn’t come from some  circle jerk with state officials in a hotel hospitality suite.”

Then Joe Rodriquez very politely but not without urgency suggested that Olson stop using the council dais as a campaign bully pulpit in violation of the city’s charter and council’s own rules.

“When has Olson ever cared about what the charter and the rules say?” I said. “Yep, here he goes again.”

The camera pulled back to show a miserable Joe Emmett who never said a word.

“Look at poor Joe. I want to buy him a Teddy bear,” my dad said.

Then the Honey Badger went to work on Keith Olson until he was gaveled down by Mayor Mac.

“What’s so funny?” my mother yelled.

“Ronnie Allen just compared himself to a character in ‘Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.’ Olson is playing the Governor,” I yelled.

“As well as one of the whores,” Dad yelled.

We could hear Mom’s tsk-tsk all the way upstairs.

“Face it, Mom, our hillbilly councilman is funnier than yours,” I yelled.

Then Olson passed the political football to gal pal Tish, who made the fuck-you play of the year—a motion to increase council’s budget to cover Olson’s overspending and to show all the citizens who’d questioned it who’s boss.

“Did Tish’s motion pass?” Mom yelled.

“Six to three,” I said.

“Good for her!” Mom yelled.

“Bad for us,” Dad said. Because in raising the council’s travel, the city now had a deficit budget in violation of the city’s charter. To fix that, the city used Monopoly money to raise the sales tax estimate to cover the difference.

“That’s OK,” my mom yelled. “A budget is all just theoretical anyway.”

“But a tax rate isn’t and neither are Olson’s travel receipts,” Dad yelled.

“Dad, pour yourself another Scotch,” I said.

We came downstairs after it was over.

“The meeting ended in tears,” I said. “Tish.”

“You’re not going to be a jerk about that, are you?” my mother said.

“Of course not,” I said. “Poor Tish. She’s in so far over her head.”

“The good news is, Andy Brauninger and Joe Rodriquez got us a 1 cent tax rollback,” Dad said, “working with Matt Benoit.”

“And everyone voted for it, right?” Mom said, eyes ablaze with triumph. “See, this council is perfectly willing to work together. There’s no need to make a change in November.”

Then Mom rushed off to answer the phone and when she came back, she was glum, her face ashen. “[Mrs. Mover and Shaker] is going to vote for Kendall Scudder.”

“Wow, you’re kidding,” my father said. “This might be just like the HISD bond election of 2012. People are gonna smile and lie their way to the ballot box and vote against Keith ‘Bird Brain’ Olson and Don ‘the Smirk’ Johnson? Yee haw!”

Mom glared at me. “Why do you always come back here during election season? Just like a bad penny.”

I pulled out a kitchen chair for her and Dad poured her a drink.

“But voting for Kendall Scudder is the smart choice, the pragmatic one, the one Olson is too dumb to see and Johnson much too arrogant,” I said. “It’s the choice that gets you exactly what you want if what you want is to move on from the petty feuds and into the land of high cotton while singing ‘Kumbaya.’ It’s the choice that puts me and people like me virtually out of business.”

“You have lost your damn mind, Bob,” my mother said. “How do you figure that?”

“Three simple reasons,” I said.

One: Olson does and says a lot of incredibly stupid things and his supporters can no longer get by with trying to offset Olson’s dumb-assery with specious demagoguery about Kendall’s age and political ambitions.

In fact, Olson is so dumb that he tipped off his opposition to a damaging little piece of information that they had no fucking clue about.

In the article in the Item on August 19 reporting that Scudder had switched from the race against Johnson to Olson’s race, Scudder called Olson “expensive.”  Scudder may have been talking about his votes on previous tax increases and give-aways. But, as per usual, Olson couldn’t keep his mouth shut.

“When (Scudder) says most expensive, he may have been griping about going to convention, the difference between expensive and education.”

No, apparently Scudder and his supporters hadn’t thought to pull your public travel records, but thanks for the tip.

Olson has been making a fool of himself for the past four years and in the process bringing even national shame to Huntsville’s City Council.

“Remember Twittergate when Olson tried to fight some fake political Twitter accounts with a grand jury and a Texas Rangers’ investigation? It made national news!” I said.

Two: Olson will continue to be a lightning rod because he won’t stop talking or doing stupid things, some of them undoubtedly beyond the cameras on Tuesday meeting nights.

“Ask yourself why Lydia Montgomery, Mac Woodward and Joe Emmett can vote the same way Olson and Johnson do, sometimes even passionately echoing their arguments, but are all rarely if ever the targets that Olson and Johnson are?” I said, and my mother cast her eyes to the floor. “Mom, I think you know.”

Olson’s on his way up, too, enabled by people like you, I told my mother.

“He’s proud of how far he’s gotten and he wants to keep climbing the political ladder. He needs to be stopped now unless you want eight more years of shenanigans and in fighting.”

Three: “The Movers and Shakers will not lose anything but factional in fighting with Olson and Johnson gone,” I said.

Brauninger and Rodriquez, the architects of the 1 cent tax rollback, have begun to build a partnership with City Manager Matt Benoit whose responsible management is what these two credit for most of the city’s $20 million surplus. Kendall has shown he also can build bridges and work with others, too.

“What about Academy and Kroger,” my mother said. “I’ve got you now, Bob. Kendall Scudder is a shill for George Russell and all those clowns who’d rather drive to Conroe than bring in more sales tax.”

“Bullshit,” I said. “You won’t forfeit any legitimate new retail. Plus, the TIRZ is in place, and not only can Olson and Johnson not take credit for it, a council that includes Kendall and Karl will be forced at this point to help fill it up.”

“You might have more people voting against 380 tax incentives, but those are unfair to taxpayers and existing local businesses,” Dad said.

“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “Because Olson and Johnson have become lightning rods for the opposition, people are going to fight any tax giveaway scheme they’re for and scare off developers.”

My mother still had a little fight left in her. “If they’re lightning rods, it’s because you made them that way,” she said bitterly. “You and your friends in the tinfoil hat crowd.”

“I think they did it to themselves. But if you think Olson and Johnson were outsmarted by a ragtag bunch of outsiders, awesome!” I said. “Then there’s still hope for democracy in Huntsville, Texas.”


Game Over

Prime suspect and trusty companion in the Drawing Room

Prime suspect and trusty companion in the Drawing Room


Mrs. White ran a rooming house off the downtown square that was once a grand mansion, one of the few old homes that had escaped Huntsville’s wrecking ball. When we arrived, Mrs. White greeted us sweetly like the innocent broad we knew she wasn’t. I had the Dear John letter in my pocket but didn’t pull it out until Pistol and I accepted her offer of lemonade and teacakes.

“What a homey old broad,” Pistol whispered, his lips dusted with powdered sugar. “You’d never know she’s got somebody buried in the backyard.”

“Mrs. White, tell us what you know about this,” I said and shoved the letter under her nose. “It was in John D. Boddy’s pocket the night he was snuffed.”

She took out the letter and squinted at it. “I need my glasses. Won’t you come inside?”

So we followed our prime suspect into the foyer of the old mansion. What a sight it was, too—massive paintings, dusty antiques and mounted animal trophies on the walls, and a marble staircase leading to a second floor of well-appointed rooms.

As we entered, Mr. Green was skipping down these stairs in a white tennis sweater and white trousers, his jacket slung over his shoulder.

“What are you doing here?” I said.

Green flashed a blinding smile. “I live here. We all do.”

“That’s right,” said Mrs. White. “Mr. Green is in the Conservatory. Miss Peacock is in the Billiard Room, Professor Plum has the Study, Miss Scarlett is in the Lounge, and Col. Mustard-Lighthouse has appropriated the Dining Room.”

“Where are you?” I said.

“I have the Ballroom,” Mrs. White said. “The best room in the house.”

“Say, where do you think you’re off to, whippersnapper?” Pistol said, grabbing Mr. Green’s arm before he could dash out the door.

“A Wendy Davis rally,” said the eager young politician. “Unhand me before you muss my sweater.”

Then, through the bank of windows overlooking the backyard, we saw four mounds of freshly turned earth.

“What’s that?” I said.

“Oh, another one of Professor Plum’s backyard projects,” Mrs. White said absently as she searched a small secretary for her glasses. “He fancies himself a landscape designer.” At last she found them and put them on. Clucking her tongue, she read the rancid Dear John letter that Sarah had written.

“It was mailed here,” I said.

“I’ve never seen it before,” she said and shuddered as she refolded the letter and slipped it into the pocket of her apron. “Nasty business.”

Then Miss Scarlett burst into the room and, before she noticed Pistol and me, blurted out: “You’ll never guess—” Then, blanching a little, she said, “Oh, hello, detectives.”

Mrs. White played the good hostess. “You remember Detective Splendor and—”

“They call me Pistol,” Pistol said, jamming both fists in his pockets. He threw a look at me that said: “Now’s our chance to sweat these dames.”

“You’ll never guess what?” I said, which flustered Scarlett. She blushed. “Only that it might rain,” she said.

“And that would be good for the Professor’s little project,” said Mrs. White, leading us back into the kitchen. “Hydrangeas.”

Then, as he peered through the kitchen windows, Pistol saw something suspicious. “Someone’s in the backyard—and it doesn’t look like one of the inmates of your little asylum.”

“Oh, dear,” said Mrs. White, clasping her hands under her chin.

“You go get a look-see outside while I search the place,” I told Pistol, and he drew his revolver as he slipped out the back door.

So Pistol and I split up, leaving the two women in the kitchen. I went from room to room in the mansion, opening the doors to their wardrobe closets, rifling through their bureau drawers. I ended up in the cellar, and then I found what we’d come for. Muddy shoe prints led from the cellar door to a small dark lair lit by the dim light of a small window. The last home of Fractal Bob. I stepped in and closed the door behind me.

Nobody had cleaned up in here for years. The small iron bed had been slept in, there were bottles of booze everywhere, and ashtrays full of butts from smokes of different brands. The small typewriter had a broken ribbon. The wire basket was full of half-written trifles and false starts. The desk drawers had been pilfered, no doubt of everything Fractal Bob had owned. I turned on the desk lamp, and there it was, a telltale bullet hole in the door and a pockmark in the concrete above the bed. I got down on the cold floor, glad I’d remembered my flashlight. I’d just found the bullet when I heard someone in high heels running down the cellar stairs. It was Miss Scarlett. “Come quick,” she said breathlessly, a lock of blond hair falling over one eye. “Something’s happened to your detective!”

. . .

Pistol was slumped in a chair with an ice pack on his head when I got back to the kitchen. His crumpled hat sat on his lap. “Well, tell me you at least got a good look at him.”

“Better than that. He’s lying in the backyard. See for yourself,” Pistol said.

I threw open the back door, but the yard was empty. “Hit him harder next time, stupid. He’s gone.”

“He’ll be back,” said Pistol, pulling something from his pocket. “I got his wallet.” And then something from the other pocket: “And his gun.”

“You get a name before he clobbered you?” I said.

“We’ve met him before,” Pistol said, “the other night at the cemetery.”

“Ah, yes,” I said. “The gunsel with the funny name.”

“Oh, my goodness. What a lot of excitement,” said Mrs. White, dropping into a kitchen chair. Miss Scarlett hurried to her side, fanning her with a hanky. But this was all for show. I was beginning to think the old broad’s specialty was trouble.

All of a sudden Mrs. White was on her feet and out the back door, clapping her hands. “You, there! Ward Three! Shoo! Shoo!”

I rushed out in time to see a big black dog, the one we also met in the cemetery, run around the side of the Carriage House and into the trees behind the mansion.

“What’s that you called him?” I asked Mrs. White.

“Why, Ward Three, dear. That’s his name.”

“Your dog?”

“Oh, my goodness, no. He’s everyone’s dog. A good watchdog he is, too. I just didn’t want him digging up Professor Plum’s hydrangeas.”

We stepped inside to find that Miss Scarlett had poured Pistol a big glass of bourbon. His head was feeling a lot better. “What’s the story?” said Pistol. “You find anything upstairs?”

“Upstairs, downstairs.” I turned to Mrs. White. “Bring everybody back here. Everybody who’s mixed up in this case. We’re going to shake them all up, see what we get.”

“Do you know who killed my Bobby Baby?” said Miss Scarlett.

“Indeed I do.”

“Do you really?” said Mrs. White. “Well, if you’ll excuse us, we’ll see if we can round them up.”

The two women left us, eager to have a word out of our earshot.

I nudged Pistol. “Let’s get something to eat. I’m thirsty.”

“Well, Splendor, how you gonna to do it?” he said.

“I haven’t the faintest idea. I’m just going to look and listen and pray that somebody makes a slip. Just one slip,” I said.

. . .

Pistol and I lingered just outside the Drawing Room as Mrs. White, Miss Scarlett, Professor Plum, Col. Mustard-Lighthouse, Mr. Green and Miss Peacock took their seats around the room.

“What’s the plan?” Pistol said.

“Build up a case against each of them. Throw everything we got at them and throw it hard enough to bounce,” I said. “Stay sharp. If anything bounces, you need to be the one who catches it.”

Pistol tugged on the brim of his crumpled hat. “You can count on me.”

“You warm up the room,” I said. “I left something upstairs.”

When I got back, the natives were already restless.

“Get on with this, copper. I’ve got places to go and people to meet,” Green said.

I started with the loquacious Miss Peacock, who had just poured her first drink.

“When did you last see Fractal Bob?”

“I’ve already told you. I’ve never seen Fractal Bob,” she said, dark eyes dancing with the mirth of some joke I didn’t get.

“You own a gun? A .22?”

“Doesn’t every girl?” Peacock said.

“Have you ever fired it in this house?”

“Of course not. But—” Peacock paused, looking uncharacteristically discreet.

“But what?” I said.

“It was Mr. Green.”

Green stood up indignantly. “I’d never carry a .22. What’d you take me for. Some kind of pansy?”

“It wasn’t Mr. Green, was it?” I said. “But why did you say so?”

“He always seems guilty of something,” she said, tossing back her second.

I pulled a .38 from the pocket of my trench coat and laid it on a round table. My suspects gasped. “That’s not mine,” Green said. “Mine’s upstairs. I’ll get it if you want me to.”

“That won’t be necessary. What about you, Miss Scarlett?”

“The only .22 in the house belongs to Peacock,” said the full-lipped blonde. Her hands trembled as she lit a cigarette.

“But I didn’t kill anyone, least of all Fractal Bob,” said Peacock.

“The other night you all swore you didn’t know this character, Fractal Bob,” I said and they quickly assured me that that was true. “How can it be when he’s been living here, too?” And then I looked from face to face to see how they took the news. Peacock and Green had gasped, but the others were anything but nonplussed. The two women, White and Scarlett, edged closer together. “But of course you knew that, didn’t you, Mrs. White? You rented him the room.”

Professor Plum turned on Peacock with belittling amusement. “Some sleuth you are. Skulking around Forest Hills, hiding behind bushes, peeking in windows, when all along Lover Boy was right here under our noses. The whole time!”

I turned my gaze on White, who was wringing her hands. “Not the whole time. Right, Mrs. White?”

“I let him move into the cellar room—my, it must have been three years ago—when his parents kicked him out. They found his political tracts, you see. But nobody else knew.”

Professor Plum raised his glass of whiskey in an arrogant little salute. “Oh, I knew. One night I followed a tall figure in a trench coat and fedora here after I’d happened upon him delivering his tracts. But I never said a word. I’d been sworn to secrecy.”

“Balderdash, Plum,” said Col. Mustard-Lighthouse.

Au contraire, Lighthorse or whatever your name is. Fractal Bob and I had quite a friendship—all by post, of course. I was his muse and his most significant influence. My thoughts became his,” Plum said, still smiling with condescension. “He was my protégé until his madness and insecurities got the better of him.”

Miss Scarlett pointed a finger at Plum. “I’ll not let you say my Bobby Baby was mad.”

“Face it, Scarlett,” said Plum, grinning incessantly. “He was barking, disturbed, crazy, plum loco. Ask Peacock. She drove him to it.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Peacock said. “Bob and I were the best of friends. Better than friends, if you know what I mean.”

Scarlett sucked in her rouged cheeks. “That’s what you think, sister.”

Green lifted his arms in exasperation. “Oh, for crying out loud! It’s Mrs. White and Miss Scarlett. They’re ‘Fractal Bob,’ always have been.”

“There’s a stiff in the morgue that says you’re wrong,” I said. “Am I right, Mrs. White?”

“Well,” she said, “I don’t know who that is. But I can promise you it’s not Fractal Bob. Fractal Bob is very much alive.”

“Here we go again,” Green said. “Somebody pour me another drink.”

Just then we heard a scuffle in the foyer, and Pistol opened the door to a gaggle of cops who held the arms of a large man, struggling to get free.

“Sit,” I commanded and the officers dumped the gunsel in a chair.

“Johnny Stompanato,” Pistol said, glaring. “Here’s the one who jumped me in the backyard this afternoon.”

Johnny Stomp let loose a loud guffaw and I smacked him. That shut him up.

“Last night you asked me to check the stiff in the morgue for a tattoo. ‘No, tattoo, no Fractal Bob.’ What was the tattoo?” I said.

“Lady Echo,” Stomp said. “Says ‘Lady Echo’ on his arm. The sap.”

“Who do you know with that tattoo?” I said.

“Not on your life, sister. I’m paid good money to keep my yap shut,” he said. “Let’s just say he’s flown the coop, and everybody’s better off.”

Peacock looked up, eyes misty with excessive drink. “You mean there really is a Fractal Bob?”

“Not no more,” Stomp said and he laughed again.

“It seems you have jumped the shark here,” said Professor Plum, his nose swollen and cheeks blushing with the warmth of a third whiskey. “Who are all these unnecessary characters and the extraneous headless stiff in the morgue? Why, this is as long as one of my columns, maybe even longer.”

Stomp jabbed a fat finger in Plum’s face. “You’re just jealous. Admit it.”

But the Professor was still smiling. “I’m no such thing. I’m a well-established writer of Northern credentials with a solid following. What do I have to be jealous about?”

“That’s rich,” muttered Miss Scarlett.

Plum’s face suddenly went slack, the smile gone. “Careful, dear. These good detectives might want to know what other young lady in the house has been packing a .22.”

I looked at Pistol. “Looks like we’ve stumbled on a little triangle here.”

“Oh, don’t be ridiculous,” Scarlett said. “The professor is twice my age.”

“But Bobby Baby was just right in every way,” I said. “Too bad he didn’t even know you existed.”

Scarlett bristled and who should come to her aid but Johnny Stompanato. “Oh, he knew she was alive, all right. Tell them, Lady Echo. No? OK, then I will. They were pen-pals and lovers, right up until the night she shot him.”

Green leapt up, surprisingly agile for a drunken man. “I knew it!”

“Sit down, you idiot,” said Scarlett. “You thought I was Fractal Bob.”

“So you admit it,” said Pistol, and Scarlett began to cry. “Yes, I shot Bobby Baby.”

“You shot at Bobby Baby,” I said. “You didn’t hit him. I found the bullet from your gun under his bed. It pierced the door and hit the wall. But there wasn’t a single drop of blood.”

“But why? Why did you shoot our Frackie Bobby?” Miss Peacock said slurringly.

I turned on Plum. “That’s a question for the Professor.”

Plum smiled again, his eyes as blue as gas jets. “I had nothing to do with it. I don’t even own a firearm.”

“You didn’t need one. You sent your love-sick little accomplice to do the deed. The two of you were both writing him letters, but he wouldn’t let either one of you get close to him,” I said. “So you sent her to his room, knowing if he’d open the door to anyone, it would be a leggy blonde with a figure that won’t quit.”

Johnny Stomp nodded his head, which was the size of a canned ham. “The stupid sap.”

Plum laughed. “You’ve got this all wrong, detective. I could have tricked her if I’d wanted to, but I didn’t send anyone.”

Mustard-Lighthouse had roused himself. “He’s finally telling the truth. Plum can’t even get the maid to take out his trash. I did it. I sent her.”

“Why on earth?” said Mrs. White.

“Minerva, dear,” said Mustard-Lighthouse, “we couldn’t afford the risk of having a new voice out there we couldn’t control. He might have said anything. Think of it. It was mildly amusing when he was on our side. But what if they had gotten a hold of him?”

“They who?” I said.

“He means The Powers That Be,” said Plum. “That’s what I call them.”

White was fuming. “I had it well in hand, Albus. You should have left it to me. We’d still have Fractal Bob and not these—“

“These what?” I said.

“Hacks,” Pistol said. “A committee of hack writers who pale in comparison to the real deal.”

“I get it,” Green said. “The real Fractal leaves and the old lady takes over.”

“You’re half right,” I said. “Mrs. White began recruiting Faux Fractals to keep the franchise going. She used Miss Scarlett to lure them in.”

“Yeah, every moonstruck poet from here to Austin,” Stomp said, and then something on the table caught his eye and he lunged for it. “My gun!”

But before he got his beefy hands on it, the officers caught him and wrestled him back into the chair. I dangled the .38 in front of him. “This is the murder weapon, the gun that killed John D. Boddy and who knows who else.”

“You can try, lady copper, but this rap won’t stick,” Stomp said. “You know who I work for.”

“I don’t care,” I said and then I stepped outside to fetch the piece of evidence I’d recovered from upstairs, a birdcage covered with a purple velvet drape. “The one who owns this is going to sing like a canary and put the both of you away.”

I yanked off the veil and inside the cage was Boddy’s skull. Miss Scarlett screamed. But the Professor was smiling again. “You can’t prove that belongs to Boddy. I have twenty-seven hours toward a master’s degree in anthropology. I have artifacts such as this all over my room.”

“And in the four shallow graves in the backyard,” I said. Then I put my two lips together and blew. At the sound of my whistle, Ward Three, the watchdog, galloped in, tripping over the carpet and losing his footing in its heavy folds. He had a dirty femur in his mouth, which he dropped at the Professor’s feet.

“Curses,” said the Professor. “Foiled by a retriever.”

“Oh, I’ve solved it,” said Green. “This one shoots them and this one buries them.”

“Hooray!” said Miss Peacock, clapping.

“Take them away, fellows,” I said, and the cops hustled out Johnny Stomp and Professor Plum. Green followed, watching the two unlikely cohorts being stuffed into a black maria for the trip to jail.

“Holy smokes,” said Green. “Politics sure makes strange bedfellows.”


The Killer Inside You




Before we could interview Mrs. White and our other suspects, there was a call for me.

“You the copper looking for Fractal Bob?” It was a smoker’s voice, deep and gravelly.

“Where is he?” I said.

“Meet me at Black Jesus. Thirty minutes, just you and the pencil dick you call Pistol.”

This gave us a little time to question Mrs. White. We decided to go tough on the old broad.

“Give it up, White,” Pistol said as soon as we entered the room where Mrs. White had been knitting furiously to pass the time. “We’re wise to you. Peacock gave you up. You’re Fractal Bob, and if you know who that stiff in the morgue is, you better ‘fess up now.”

Mrs. White set aside her knitting and looked over her horn-rimmed glasses at my partner and me. “Oh, that Miss Peacock, so silly and so impressionable. Have you ever read Fractal Bob? He just loved Miss Peacock and Mr. Green. He was so excited these young people were running for office and so passionate about local politics. Sentimental, idealistic fool, if I do say. And then what should happen but they ruined him.”

“Them who? His enemies in city government?”

Mrs. White chuckled. “No, dear, his enemies are far too stupid to catch up with Fractal Bob. You’ve got a mayor pro tem who didn’t know the First Amendment was part of the Constitution.” She laughed again, and we couldn’t help ourselves—thinking about the slow-talking mustachioed lug who had worked his way into the upper echelons of city government—we laughed, too.

Then Mrs. White grew somber. “Well, I guess he’s not so stupid after all, is he? Wiggling out of felony prosecutions with the help of the district attorney, defeating Mr. Green at the ballot box, staging a coup against the evil Don Johnson for the second spot. Why, I bet Mayor Woodward sleeps every night with one eye open.”

“So if you don’t think the Mustachioed Mayor Pro Tem killed Fractal Bob, then it must have been Don the Don Johnson, the former mayor pro tem,” I said.

Pistol shuddered. “That creepy smirk of his gives me the willies. I’d hate to get a peek in his closet. Bet there’s more in there than a couple of skeletons.”

“Yes, indeed,” said Mrs. White cheerily. “Take it from one who knows. You don’t want to be on Mr. Johnson’s bad side. But it wasn’t Fractal’s enemies that put an end to him, it was his friends.”

It had been a long night and I finally lost my temper. “Come clean, you cheeky spinster. Are you or are you not Fractal Bob, and who is that headless, no-balls stiff laid out in the city morgue?”

Mrs. White sat bolt upright and crossed her arms across her chest. She glared a hole through me, lips compressed, face white with indignation. “For the last time, I am not Fractal Bob! Miss Peacock, Mr. Green, Miss Scarlett, Plum and Mustard-Lighthouse, they all drove Fractal Bob away and I was forced—” She caught herself and quickly regained her composure. “Well, that’s all I’m going to say.”

I remembered something else Miss Peacock said before she rushed out of the interview room to resume her Saturday night bar hopping. “Miss Peacock said she was Fractal Bob’s muse.”

Mrs. White laughed in spite of herself. “That’s Rich—I mean, that’s very unlikely.”

“What about Miss Scarlett?” Pistol said, and Mrs. White looked back at him with an arched eyebrow. “Who told you about Miss Scarlett?”

“Why, Miss Peacock did,” I said. “So this was a secret?”

Mrs. White looked down musingly. “I thought so, but you’ll have to ask Scarlett.”

I was sure Mrs. White knew more, a hell of a lot more, but Pistol and I couldn’t wait. We were late for our rendezvous with the mystery man in the cemetery.

Col. Mustard-Lighthouse was waiting for us just outside the room where we’d been putting the screws to Mrs. White. “Will you be needing the rest of us tonight?” Behind him, Mr. Green, Miss Scarlett and Professor Plum were tiptoeing out the door as our fellow murder police slept snoringly at their desks. “You’re cutting into the most productive part of my day. And we really have nothing to offer you about poor dear departed Fractal Bob.”

“Whats-a-matta, Colonel? You got a severed head you gotta bury before sun-up?” Pistol said.

“My dear man,” Col. Mustard-Lighthouse stammered.

“Beat it,” Pistol said. “But stick around so we can find you tomorrow.”

*     *    *

A big black dog seemed to be waiting for us at the cemetery gate, and he followed us inside as we threaded our way in the dark toward the secluded grove where Black Jesus and our anonymous caller waited.

“Your friend?” I said, looking at the big dog padding behind us.

“He does seem to be part of this mission, doesn’t he?” Pistol said.

“You don’t think it’s Keith Olson out here waiting to ambush us,” I said.

“Naw, he’d send Mike Roempke or one of his city flunkies to do his dirty work,” Pistol said. “Olson doesn’t need to get his hands dirty any more.”

We waited a few minutes in the dark for our mystery man to show himself. The dog sat at our feet, as vigilant as we were, scanning the gravestones and cedars for any sign of movement. I looked up into Jesus’s face as the wind stirred the leaves on the trees and the mist closed in around us. “They say he weeps and his palms go up or down or something,” I said.

“Bullshit,” Pistol said, lighting a cigarette. “How long do we give this mope?”

Then, not ten feet away, someone lit a match and it glowed in the dark. I put my hand on the gun in my pocket and the dog got up, growling.

“Show yourself,” Pistol said.

“Nothing doing, bright boy,” the man in the shadows said.

I put my hand on Pistol’s arm. “Johnny Stomp,” I said.

It had to be Johnny Stompanato, local gangster, the muscle behind all the schemes and scams of The Powers That Be.

“You got something you want to tell us or is this some sort of shakedown?” I said.

“I got nothing to tell you, lady detective. It’s the other way around,” said Stomp. “I got some anxious muckety-mucks on my hands. I need to know the name of the corpse lying around the morgue.”

“Tell Mr. and Mrs. Muckety Muck we don’t got a name,” Pistol said.

“What’s he look like?” Stomp said. “This corpse.”

“Hard to tell, Mister. He’s missing his mug. His whole head, in fact,” I said.

Stomp was quiet, but we watched him drag on his cigarette, the glow at its tip becoming brighter as he sucked on the other end.

“Go back and check for a tattoo. Red rose with the name of a dame underneath. No tattoo, no Fractal Bob. I’ll call you in an hour or two,” said Stomp.

“We don’t take orders from thugs,” said Pistol, whipping out his handcuffs and starting at Stomp. But Stomp drew a snub-nosed revolver and pointed it at Pistol’s chest. Then the big black dog sprung into the air and knocked Stomp down. The gun went flying.

“Call him off,” Stomp screamed as he wrestled with the dog.

“Not our dog,” Pistol said. And he picked up the gunsel’s snubnose as we walked away.

*  *  *

The body of Fractal Bob, John D. Boddy, or what have you, lay naked on a gurney in the cold, brightly lit morgue. Pistol and I got an interesting surprise, however.

“He’s got balls,” Pistol said.

“Yeah, nice big ones,” I said.

“Simmer down,” Pistol said. “He’s dead, remember?”

But that wasn’t hard to forget. In addition to his yellow pallor, our strapping corpse was also sporting stitches from a Y incision and what was left of his neck was ragged and raw. Just then the coroner came over and winked at me.

“Wowser. He’s got balls,” I said.

“Indeed he does. Nice big ones,” the coroner said.

“But you said the balls were gone,” Pistol said.

“Did I? Well, I meant that only metaphorically,” the coroner said. He handed me a letter, which he had pulled from Boddy’s neat pile of personal effects. “You missed this.”

It was a Dear John letter signed by a woman named Sarah. It read as brutal and raw as the torn flesh on Boddy’s jagged neck. I passed it to Pistol, who skimmed it. “Ouch,” said Pistol, grabbing his own package.

“Maybe she killed him, this Sarah,” I said.

“Maybe so,” said the coroner. “But the letter is dated three years ago and it was mailed from up East. Plus, I don’t think a broad who can write like this needs a lead pipe or a revolver to make her point, and my guess is that she’d rather leave him alive to suffer rather than put him out of his misery. Whoever killed Mr. Boddy bludgeoned him, stabbed him or shot him in the head or, possibly, choked him or hung him from a rope.”

“Why cut off the head?” Pistol said.

The coroner picked up a small saw for use, no doubt, on the next customer. “Maybe it was the chilling effect of the eyes looking back at the killer—open wide in the terror of his final seconds, blank, accusing. Whoever it was, they couldn’t stand the eyes.”

Pistol was green around the gills, and I took him by the arm to lead him out. “Wait a second,” he said. “Tattoo.”

So I went back to the stiff and checked both arms. No rose tattoo. No tattoo at all.

“Let us know if someone claims Mr. Boddy’s body,” I said over my shoulder to the coroner as an orderly wheeled Boddy back to the morgue’s ice box. “Fat chance,” said the coroner just before he flipped on the saw.

“Now what?” Pistol said as we stood outside the morgue and a light rain began to fall.

“Damn, we need that head.”

“Impossible, Splendor. It could be anywhere.”

 * * *

Pistol and I grabbed some bacon and eggs at the Cafe Texan just after sun-up, and I sent him to talk to our prime suspects, Fractal Bob’s friends, and his favorite targets: Dee Everett, former chamber president/floogie and tax fund misappropriator, chamber toady George Miles, Mayor Pro Tem Olson, Councilman Don the Don Johnson and former Mayor Bill Green. Then I sent some cops out to beat the bushes for Boddy’s people as I searched high and low for Poison Pen Sarah of Boston, Mass. I finally found her number in the Boston phone book at the public library. She answered breathlessly on the eighth ring.

“Please explain this most inopportune of interruptions,” she said, still catching her breath. I introduced myself. “Oh, Huntsville, Texas. Really”—though it sounded instead like “rally” in her sham British accent. “You must be calling about my ex-lover Bob. Well, I can assure you I haven’t set eyes on his doleful mien in three years or more. So unless you’ve called to tell me he’s left me a fortune, I must return to my boudoir where I am entertaining. Tah tah.” Click.

Pistol burst in just as I found on the letter and its envelope a couple of little clues I had overlooked. But Pistol couldn’t wait.

“Listen to this bullshit,” he said. “Keith Olson doesn’t know a John D. Boddy; in fact, nobody does. No record of him anywhere. And Olson’s never heard of Fractal Bob. He can only read at a fifth-grade level,” Pistol said, holding up an anonymous tract, “so this hilarious masterpiece of satire was way over his head. Couldn’t find Dee Everett, George Miles or Don Johnson. That’s a slippery lot. But Bill Green is a nice man. He’s just got some very funny ideas about governance.”

“What did our colored playing pieces say?” I said.

“Mr. Green says Miss Scarlett and Mrs. White are Fractal Bob. He found the printing press in Mrs. White’s garage and a typewriter in Miss Scarlett’s closet.”

“Well, ain’t he the little Snoopy McSnooperson?” I said.

“Miss Scarlett claims neither she nor the White broad are Fractal Bob. But this Scarlett dame says there’s no point in even asking anyone if they’re Frackie Bobby. If someone cops to it, they’re lying. The first rule of Fractal Bob is to deny, deny, deny.”

“Hold it right there,” I said. “You’re saying that if I ask someone if he’s Fractal Bob and he says no, he could be lying or he could be telling the truth. But if I ask someone if he’s Fractal Bob and he says yes, he’s definitely lying?”

“You got it,” Pistol said. “That’s the Fractal Bob code.”

“For crying out loud. Are you starting to hate these people?”

Pistol quieted me and picked up the thread of his interrogation summary again. Col. Mustard-Lighthouse says he learned from Green and Peacock about White and Scarlett, but he’s not sure who writes what or if there’s a real Fractal Bob somewhere. If there is, his money is on crazy George Russell. Professor Plum says it’s certainly not George Russell but “a committee”—which never included him, mind you—that writes, publishes and distributes the tracts. He knows who’s at the center of it all, but he can’t say. He’s been sworn to secrecy. “And the Professor opines that if someone killed anyone around here, it could only be with the permission of The Powers That Be.”

“Are you also lying if you say you know who Fractal Bob really is?”

“Absolutely,” Pistol said. “According to Fractal logic.”

“So why did Miss Scarlett accuse Mr. Green of killing her Bobby Baby?”

Pistol pushed his hat back and wiped his forehead hastily with his handkerchief. “She accused him before he could accuse her, but both swear they didn’t do it.”

“Wowser. So what about Mrs. White?” I said.

“She’s so sweet,” Pistol said. “She served cake and coffee and asked me about my kids. Did you find that heartless bitch, Sarah?”

“She was no help, but look at this.” I showed Pistol the letter—it didn’t begin “Dear John” but “Dear Bupkis.” And even screwier, it wasn’t mailed to Mr. Boddy. The envelope was sent to “Occupant” at the address below.

“Holy cow, I know this address,” Pistol said. “I was just there!”

“Whose is it?”

“Mrs. White’s!” Pistol said and then he snatched the letter from me and dashed out the door. I picked up my coat and ran after him. If Pistol was going to crack this case wide open, I damn sure was going to be there.

To Be Continued.

Fractured Bob



My partner, Pistol, and I came up on the body laid out on the dewy grass of the town’s seedy cemetery, just feet from Black Jesus, a life-sized sculpture of our Lord that had ominously darkened just days after it was set upon its pedestal. The body was clad in shadows and mist, but, even from several yards away, I could see that something was screwy.

“Where’s his head?” I asked the murder of black-suited flatfoots hunkered like hungry crows under the nearby cedars.

“Beats us,” they said and shrugged, turning away.

“Bring those lanterns over here,” I said.

Whoever it was, he was tall, almost six feet even without his head. He wore a trench coat over a nice suit and his shoes were clean and unscuffed. His fedora lay neatly, crown up, in the spot where his head should have been. On the grass, there was not a single drop of blood.

“He must have been killed somewhere else and dumped here,” Pistol said.

“No shit, Sherlock,” I said.

Using a stick, I flipped open the stiff’s coat and Pistol and I went through his pockets. A leather wallet with an ID and a couple of crisp sawbucks inside. The stiff’s name was John D. Boddy.

“Boddy? Are you serious?” said Pistol, grinning.

“What?” I said.

“Mister Body, get it?” Pistol said. “Mr. Dead Body?”

“Clam up,” I said. “I’m working here.”

Mr. Boddy’s body also gave up a blood-speckled calling card belonging to one Mr. Green, a local politician, a paper napkin with a lip print in firehouse red, a scrap of paper with a phone number scribbled on it, and a brand new typewriter ribbon still in the box.

“What do you make of this?” I said.

“Elementary, my dear Splendor. He’s a reporter with a sexy dame on the side and one on the hook,” Pistol said.

“Gee, I wonder what happened to his head,” I said.

“He lost it, obviously,” Pistol said. “Oh! Rim shot!”

Soon the meat wagon came for Mr. Boddy’s body, and Pistol and I stuffed the evidence in our coat pockets and hoofed it over to the Stardust Room for a drink before closing time.

“What’ll it be, Detective Splendor?” said Veronica, or was it Lucy?

“The usual,” I said, and the barkeep brought a Cape Cod for me and a bourbon on the rocks for my partner.

“Look, there’s Green,” Pistol said. “Mr. Green from the stiff’s coat pocket.”

The young and dapper Mr. Green was holding court at a corner table with a tight group of local gadflies: Mrs. White, Miss Peacock, Professor Plum, Col. Mustard-Lighthouse, and that leggy bombshell blonde, Miss Scarlett.

Pistol reeled in Green, who came with his margarita. But Green’s glib, politician’s smile fled when he saw his bloody calling card between Pistol’s beefy fingers.

“Where’d you get that?” Green said.

“On a stiff,” Pistol said, “by the name of John D. Boddy. Ring any bells?”

Green seemed sincerely baffled. “No,” he said. “What did he look like?”

“No clue. His head was missing.”

Green cringed but turned to his gaggle and called them over excitedly. “A headless corpse had my card in his pocket. Is that edgy or what?”

They shuddered with the deliciousness of this news. “Who was he?” asked Miss Peacock, but the name, John D. Boddy, didn’t seem to mean anything to her or her friends.

“What was he wearing?” asked Miss Scarlett in a soft, musky voice, and I described the dead man’s attire. Blue suit, red tie, black trench coat, black felt fedora.

“Black fedora?” she said. “With a little red feather in the brim?”

“Yes,” Pistol said.

They gasped.

“No head, did you say?” Plum said, wincing.

“Sawed off at the neck,” I said.

“Hat lying as neatly as you please in the grass,” Pistol said, watching them all closely.

Miss Peacock shrieked. Miss Scarlett fell into Professor Plum’s arms in an anguished embrace.

“You know this man?” I said.

“We know him by another name,” said Mrs. White, quickly producing a lacy handkerchief to dab her moist eyes.

“Fractal Bob,” said the equally mournful Col. Mustard-Lighthouse.

“Who?” we said.

“An anonymous political writer,” said Mrs. White. “You might have seen his tracts. They were all over town. Right before every election.”

Pistol took out his notebook and pencil. “Frackall? How do you spell that?”

“It’s F-R-A-C-T-A-L,” said Plum. “A fractal is a mathematical set of self-repeating patterns that are the same size at every scale.” He studied Pistol’s cow-like gaze with a frown. “In a few simple words, it’s a picture of chaos.”

Pistol looked at me. “What the hell kind of screwball stiff do we have here?”

Peacock eyed the collection of stuff we’d pulled from Fractal Bob’s pockets. “Hey, that’s my phone number!”

Scarlett picked up the paper napkin carefully by a corner. “That’s my shade of lipstick.”

“Oh, dear. I loaned a fresh typewriter ribbon to a young man just yesterday,” said Plum.

“Pay your tabs, folks. You’re all coming downtown with us to answer some questions,” Pistol said.

“You can’t mean it! We’re all suspects?” said the oh-so-proper Mrs. White.

“You got it, lady,” Pistol said.

“Awesome!” said Miss Peacock, clasping her hands to her ample bosom in glee.

Pistol and I kept our suspects on ice while the coroner got a first look at the body of John D. Boddy, a.k.a. Fractal Bob, and Pistol did a quick search of the suspects’ homes. He came back to the office with a rucksack and dumped the contents on my desk: a candlestick, a rope, a monkey wrench, a lead pipe, a dagger, and an Allan & Thurber pepper box revolver.

I picked up the antique revolver by the butt and whistled. “I haven’t seen one of these since the Great War. My grandpappy had one.”

Pistol was blushing with shame. “I got bad news for you, Splendor. I sent some rookies off on the house searches and they mixed all these things up. I have no idea what weapon belongs to which suspect.”

“You ass hat,” I said. “And where the hell were you?”

“Went back to the ‘Dust for one more belt,” Pistol said. “This case is giving me the willies.”

“You mean the DTs,” I said.

“Look, here’s the sawbones,” Pistol said, and I looked up to see the coroner in the doorway.

The coroner studied the lethal pile of could-be murder weapons on my desk. “These are all useless—without the head, anyway. I can’t determine the cause of death without it. Whatever killed your victim happened to his skull. The body was fine, a perfectly healthy specimen of a well-nourished American male. Minus his balls.”

“What?” Pistol said, shifting uncomfortably.

The coroner picked up the dagger by its hilt. “This might have done it, sliced them off, I mean, but I doubt it. Mr. Boddy lost his balls a long time ago.”

“What about the head? Could this dagger have been used to cut it off?” I said.

“Not likely,” the coroner said. “It was taken off by someone at their leisure with a small hand saw, the kind one might use to prune a plum tree.”

“Plum, did you say?” said Pistol, arching an eyebrow.

“Well, any small fruit tree, really,” the coroner said. Then he turned to me. “What’s say you call it a night, Darlene, and you let the doctor pour you a drink and tuck you in? This stiff will still be stiff in the morning.”

“Shove off, sawbones,” Pistol said as I was weighing the doctor’s offer. “We’ve got work to do.”

Just then there was a loud ruckus in the hallway. Pistol and I rushed out to find our suspects in a bit of a brawl. A couple of beat cops had a grip on Mr. Green, who was bleeding from the mouth. It was easy to see who’d taken the swing at him. Miss Scarlett was nursing a hand with a row of raw knuckles.

“Arrest her!” Green shrieked, trying to wrestle free of the burly cops.

“You deserved it,” Miss Scarlett said. “You did it! You killed my Bobby Baby!”

Green had one arm free now and he jabbed a finger at Miss Peacock. “She did it! She’s the one who killed Fractal Bob.”

“Me?! It was her!” shrieked Peacock, pointing at Scarlett.

“She,” corrected Mrs. White.

Scarlett balled her bruised hand into a fist. “Why, I oughta—” she said through clenched teeth. But Col. Mustard-Lighthouse thrust out his arm to keep her from charging the hapless Miss Peacock. “Let’s all just calm down here.”

“Yes, stop this,” said Mrs. White, arms akimbo. “Or you’ll all end up in the pokey!”

And Professor Plum said nothing, eyeing them all with a smidge of an ironic smile.

“That’s where she belongs!” Green snarled at Peacock, which prompted a fresh scuffle, so Pistol and I corralled them each into separate rooms.

We started with Miss Peacock.

“Who killed Fractal Bob?” I said. “You?”

“Are you kidding?” she said. “We didn’t kill him. We love Fractal Bob. He’s ours, one of us. If you want to find the killer, read Bob’s tracts about graft and corruption in this stupid burg. Those are your suspects, the assholes Bob fingered. Don Johnson, Keith Olson, Dee Everett, George Miles, Bill Green.”

“Green?” I said.

Peacock gave a slight wave of her hand. “No relation. But look, Bob hated how they operate just like we do. That’s all he wrote about. He was our hero.”

“If that’s true, why go anonymous?” Pistol said. “He sounds more like a lily-livered schmuck to me.”

“You don’t get it,” Peacock said. “That anonymous thing was all just part of Bob’s schtick. It was a lark to him, a game of catch me if you can.”

I remembered the twinkle in Professor Plum’s eye as he watched his friends’ squad room ruckus. “What does the Professor have to do with this?”

“Nothing,” Peacock scoffed. “At first, we all thought it him—he— who was writing Fractal’s tracts. He’s the only writer in our group, the only one clever enough to pull off that kind of satire.”

“How do you know it wasn’t him?” I said.

“Because he swore it wasn’t. And because one night a note from Fractal Bob was delivered to me at the ‘Dust while I was having drinks there with the Professor. Plum couldn’t be in two places at once, could he?”

“The Professor could have written the note earlier and arranged to have it delivered to you at the bar after he got there,” I said.

Peacock laughed. “Plum? He’s clever but not that clever. And if he writes something, he wants everyone to know. Everyone. There’s no way Professor Plum would let anyone take credit for something he wrote, and you’re just asking for that if you leave your name off.”

“What did this Fractal Bob look like?” I said.

“How should I know?” Peacock said. “But I know he had great legs. He biked all over town.”

“How’d you know that,” Pistol said.

“He told me, silly!”

Pistol and I rolled our eyes at each other.

“Who else could have been Fractal Bob,” I asked Peacock, “if it wasn’t Professor Plum?”

She ticked off the names that had popped up in the parlor game of unmasking Fractal Bob. “But I know who it really is.” She leaned forward. “It’s Mrs. White.”

We stared at her blankly. Mrs. White, the kindly matron, the dowdy, bespectacled grammarian—a masked heart throb and political provocateur?

“Get real, sister,” Pistol said. “And we have a bona fide, mostly male stiff in the morgue that you jokers have already identified as Fractal Bob.”

We watched as it dawned on Miss Peacock that the game she and her friends had been playing was not over, and her glee all but bubbled over. “The plot thickens,” she said, clapping. “I knew it! Ain’t it great when there’s a good twist at the end?”

“So why’d you kill him?” said Pistol, dead-pan and steely-eyed.

“I just told you I didn’t. I couldn’t. I wouldn’t!”

“Yes, but Green pointed a finger at you.”

“Oh, don’t be silly! Green only knows what I tell him, and then he adds two and two together to get five. I would never have killed Bob. He and I were friends.” She wiggled her brows provocatively. “Good friends. Get it? I was his inspiration. I was his muse. The other girls don’t think so, but it’s true.”

“What other girls?” we said.

Peacock tossed her thick, dark hair. “Why, Miss Scarlett, of course.”





Huntsville-s Stubborn Scrooge

scrooge and marley 2

As Don Johnson made his way through the yard of his Elkins Lake home, he paused to admire the trees, the bushes, the eaves of the well-appointed homes dripping with festive lights, the electrified manifestations of a robust Christian superiority. “If only I had had snow trucked in from Houston at taxpayer expense,” he thought. “No one’s looking at the books these days.”

That was because he, Don the Don, had villainized all those who  displayed a bent for the unclean thinking that leads to insurrection.

“We, the movers and shakers, we rule here unchallenged for the glory of Almighty God,” said Don to himself. “Is there not now a Hobby Lobby and might there not soon be an Academy and a Chick-fil-A? Is that not my doing along with Buxton Consumer Analytics of Fort Worth, Texas?”

Then a mist rose from a Nativity Scene. In it, Don soon could discern a face, which he thought he might recognize from portraits hanging in the halls of Huntsville’s back rooms. It was not angry or ferocious, but it looked at Don as it had while Don sat scheming beneath its portrait, sternly and with unquestioned authority. The hair of this dour face was stirred, as if by breath or hot air, and, though the eyes were wide open, they were perfectly motionless. That, and its livid color, made it horrible.

As Don stared fixedly at this phenomenon, it was a Nativity Scene again. Yet now the Baby Jesus seemed to be smiling ever so slightly. Don wasn’t sure why, but he felt uneasy. What was that baby up to?

Don entered his home and felt instantly safe and warm. He forgot all about the strange spectre on the front lawn. He had married well, raised a family, and his home was bright and full of love. Yes, indeed, the Lord had smiled upon Don Johnson.

Yet, as the clock on the wall chimed twelve that night, Don awoke with a start, mistaking the toll of bells for gunfire.

“Lanny Ray!” he shouted.

“Go back to sleep, Don,” said his sweet and gentle wife. “Lanny’s not the crazy one; that’s his ex-wife. The courts said so, and I heard it from somebody at bunco.”

“Right,” said Don, adjusting his night cap and settling back into his comfy bed. “But they’re all armed, you know. AK 47s and what have you. Even George Russell supports the Second Amendment.”

“Good, he’s a constitutionalist,” Don’s sleepy wife said. “Just what you always wanted.”

She was fast asleep again when Don heard from the floor below a clanking noise as if someone were dragging a heavy chain across the kitchen tile.

“It’s humbug!” said Don. “I won’t believe it.”

His natural pallor blanched further, when, without a pause, it came through the bedroom door and passed into the room before his eyes.  The same face: the very same. In its suit with the wide lapels and the wide chevron tie. The chain he drew was clasped about his middle. It was long, and wound about him like a tail; and it was made of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel.

Though he looked the Phantom through and through and saw it standing before him, though he felt the chilling influence of its death-cold eyes, Don was still incredulous, and fought against his senses.

“How now!” Don said. “What do you want with me?”


“Who are you?”

“Ask me who I was.”

“Who were you then.” said Don.

“In life, I was Ed Sandhop, Gibbs overseer.” Don invited the ghost to sit and he sat as if he were quite used to it. “You don’t believe in me,” observed the Ghost.

“I don’t,” said Don. “And I have no time for you this Christmas Eve. I’ve spent over five thousand dollars in gifts and must make the rounds to receive the thanks and fealty of the little people who so depend on a nod from me from time to time to be reassured of their worth.”

The Ghost sat perfectly motionless, its hair, the legs of its trousers, and the tassels on its loafers were still agitated as by the hot vapor from an oven. “Do you believe in me or not?”

“I do,” said Don. “I must. But why do you come to me?”

“If a spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world—oh, woe is me!—and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!”

“You are fettered,” Don said. “Tell me why?”

“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard, fifty-seven years; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?”

Don trembled more and more.

“Or would you know,” pursued the Ghost, “the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this, three Christmas Eves ago. You have labored on it since. It is a ponderous chain!”

Don glanced about himself, expecting to find himself surrounded by some fifty or sixty fathoms of iron cable. There was nothing.

“Perhaps, jealous Phantom, you miss in death what I now control,” Don said. “To frighten me out of my rightful role, that might be more your mission than the merciful one you claim.”

The Ghost, on hearing this, set up a cry and clanked its chain hideously.

“But you were always a good man of business, Ed,” faltered Don, who now began to apply himself to this in hopes of banishing Sandhop and returning to an uninterrupted sleep.

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands. “My own life was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business.”

Don smiled with condescension, realizing  that this Ghost had misunderstood him completely. Sandhop may have been a poor Christian—if that was indeed what he was confessing—but Don had a reserved room in his Father’s Mansion. He was sure of it.

“Wipe that sickly smirk from your visage,” the Ghost bellowed and rattled his chain. “It reveals the unseemly and unchristian thoughts that seem to circumnavigate your small mind.”

“Don’t be hard upon me, Sandhop! Pray!” said Don.

“You will be haunted,” resumed the Ghost, “by Three Spirits.”

“I—I think I’d rather not,” Don said.

“Without their visits,” said the Ghost, “you cannot hope to shun the path I tread. Expect the first when the bell tolls One. Expect the second at Two, the third when the last stroke of Three has ceased to vibrate. For your own sake, remember what has passed between us.”

The apparition floated through a closed window and upon the bleak, dark night. Don went straight to bed. His wife stirred, half awake. “What’s wrong, honey? Can’t you sleep?”

Don grumbled about a bad dream, a talking ghost, the fault, no doubt, of an undigested apple-dumpling.

His wife yawned. “That’s Melville, dear,” she said. “You mean ‘an undigested bit of beef, a fragment of an underdone potato.’  No need to worry. There’s more of gravy than of the grave in what you saw.”


Don slept through the chime of the clock but awoke feeling someone pulling on his big toe. In the dim light from the frosty moon let in by his window, he saw a being with wild hair. He sat bolt upright in bed. “Intruder!” he shouted or thought he had, yet his wife remained asleep.

Don leapt from the bed as the Spirit beckoned him to the window. It was a strange figure—like a child, yet not so like a child as like an old man, viewed through some supernatural medium. Its hair, which hung about its neck, was white as if with age; and yet the face had not a wrinkle in it. It wore a denim shirt and filthy, worn blue jeans. Its bare feet were shod in sandals, despite the cold outside, and its toes were long and gnarled, the toenails split and dirty. It cackled, grasping Don’s soft, clammy hand as it flew with Don through the window, which had flung itself open in anticipation of their flight.

“Unhand me, you crazy fool, you George Russell,” said Don as he and the Spirit drifted over the rooftops of Elkins Lake. “What do you want of me at this hour?”

“I am the man who loves Huntsville most of all,” said George. “I am the Ghost of Huntsville’s Christmas Past.”

They lighted within in a woodland home and Don recognized it instantly because Sam Houston himself stood in the middle of the scene, making merry with his family and friends while house slaves waited on them hand and foot.

Despite being aware that he was clad only in pajamas, Don broke free from George Russell and hurried to greet the Great Man, the one who now stood in concrete sixty-seven feet tall on the interstate highway and who looked like a big glowing dildo at night from six miles out.

“Don’t bother, idiot. He can’t see you,” said a voice behind him, one he recognized from just an hour before. Don turned to see Sandhop and his chains seated in a wooden chair against the wall.

“This isn’t how this is supposed to work,” Don said. “I’ve read my Dickens. You disappear at the end of the first part.”

“I’m directing this scene,” George said, “and who better to narrate a Huntsville history lesson but the Gibbs Mafia’s greatest and most feared consigliere?”

Don took a seat next to Sandhop’s ghost, as it rolled its large transparent eyes at George’s foolery, and watched the Houstons’ rustic Christmas unfold.

“Sugar is twelve dollars pound this year, thanks to the War. Too bad we didn’t think to hoard it at the dry goods store,” the Spectre said. “We could have marked it up another two bits.”

“Even the Houstons couldn’t pay that price,” George said.

“Houston was as poor as the rest of us,” grumbled Sandhop’s ghost. “We didn’t grovel at his celebrity until much later. Drunkard, Indian lover, Union sympathizer that he was.”

“What are we doing here, spirits?” Don said. “What am I supposed to learn from this visitation?”

“Who do you see in this room, Johnson?” Sandhop said. “I see the old families of Huntsville, the children of those who erected the first trading post and welcomed the first stage coach line.”

“I see,” said George, “the rise of an enlightened society, a small but progressive city on seven hills, just like Rome, which might have been the seat of government rather than home of the nation’s largest penal system and a public diploma mill.”

“I see a cash cow,” said Don. “Or calf. The city is young.”

Then Don found himself in a large stately home across the street from the present-day Sam Houston Memorial Museum. It was crammed full of all manner of  knickknacks, antiques, books and other junk. Lots of junk, some of it obscene. A crazy person lived here. Clearly.

“What is this place?” Don said. “And why are we moving so quickly from scene to scene without the proper transition?”

“It’s called the quick cut,” George said. “Very popular since MTV. Nobody’s got the attention span to hang out in 1862 for a whole hour. So now, let’s talk about me.”

“So this is your house?” said Don, doing a quick appraisal of the furnishings.

“I’m going to turn it into a museum,” George said. “And they won’t like it.”

“Who?” Don said, hoping soon for another “quick cut” right back into his bed.

“The Gibbs, the Smithers, their offspring and descendants, Joe Smythe, the shot caller from New York, the one who had me falsely arrested for protecting my trees,” said George, and then he gave Don Johnson a tour, ending in a room full of pots made by Gibbs slaves, just a portion of his vast holdings of Walker County history. “You know, Mary Laura insists her people didn’t own slaves.”

Don would have agreed that George’s many collections were impressive. For example, these simple ceramic pots, which filled a table nearly a football field long. They had been inscribed, before they were fired by slave hands, with the date of their making. Beyond these walls, on land cleared by men and women who had been bought and sold like livestock, Huntsville’s first plantations were built. Don had never given this any thought, but now the plantation business model—the huge profit potential afforded by free labor—charmed him. Here was something to commend Huntsville’s history after all.

He looked George in the eye as he and this wild-eyed, sex-crazed spectre shared a moment of clarity. Don smirked. “You’re just like me,” he told the Ghost of Christmas Past. “Weathly, white, entitled. But you wouldn’t hoard this shameful pottery if it were your own family’s dirty secret, would you?”

Then Don found himself on his knees in front of Black Jesus in Oakwood Cemetery. He looked up into the tarnished face of Christ. “Dear Lord, what was my take-away in that last scene? I must have missed it.”

“Yeah, I don’t know whose idea it was to let George direct that segment,” sayeth Black Jesus. “Rise, Don Johnson, and listen. First, you were supposed to get that the Gibbs founded this town and they still own it. It rankles their settlers’ souls that George has preserved more of their history than they have, because it’s not his to buy and keep. He’s not entitled to Huntsville’s past, present or future. And neither are you.”

“Me? Pray what did I do, Black Jesus?”

But, though He smiled ever so slightly, the Lord was silent.


Don woke up in his own bed as the clock began to chime, and just as he was ready to dismiss the previous hour and sleep willfully through the next, a petite figure appeared at the foot of his bed, a short, trim feminine form of  post-menopausal age. She wore a whistle around her neck, which she brought to her lips and blew. Its shrill call had him on his feet before he knew it.

“Why are you still in bed? There’s so much to do!” this determined spectre said. “Jane is counting on you.”

Don gathered the bedclothes about himself and glanced over at his wife to make sure she was still asleep. “Nancy?” he said sternly to the ghost. “Nancy Franklin? What are you doing here?”

“I’m the Ghost of Christmas Present, and I’m so proud that Ed Sandhop entrusted me with this hour of his program. So get up!”

Don barely had two feet on the floor when, head still spinning, he found himself in a crowded room in a home he recognized. Again, he was self-conscious at being under-dressed and without his wife, who, many joked—behind his back, of course—was his only “human credential.” Don often had to fake the warmth and interest in others that seemed to come naturally to her.

“Maybe you’re a sociopath,” said the Ghost of Christmas Present, who must have read Don’s thoughts. “But anyway, I’ve got things to do, so you go sit over there with Ed Sandhop. They can’t see him, either.”

The Ghost of Sandhop barely acknowledged Don as he sat down. “Here we are again,” said Don, hoping Sandhop would make conversation. “What now, Spectre?”

“There’s that smirk again,” Sandhop said. “I urge you to get before a mirror and practice something pleasing and subtle. You really would shudder to see yourself on the television.”

Don stopped smiling and scowled, looking at all the party bustle. “Wasn’t I invited?”

“This year,” Sandhop said. “But you’re losing ground. You know that, don’t you? You’re at least that smart, I hope.”

Don was reminded of the Night of the Long Knives, the first city council meeting after the Nov. 5, 2013, city election. Two newcomers, both from Elkins Lake, took their seats at the dais and the incumbent rubes took over, nominating one of their own and ousting Don from his post as mayor pro tem. “It’s not my fault,” Don said.

But Sandhop’s ghost sat silently, gathering a length of chain in his hands much like a consigliere might prepare a garrote for use.

“Okay, so it is my fault,” Don said quickly, though he was sure that it wasn’t, but the Spectre let his chains slip through his hands. Don leaned closer. “But why is it my fault?”

The sigh of a spectre is a chilling sound, a deep, hollow whistle on a cold, icy night. Don shivered, waiting for Sandhop’s ghost to speak.

“You’re arrogant yet weak and poor of judgment, and not very bright to boot,” the Ghost said. “So all your clumsy schemes and machinations are transparent for all to see. And look what’s happened! Public discussion! Insurrection! Ronnie Allen!”

“I won’t be accused of transparency, sir! I don’t care how fearsome you were in life and are now in death,” Don said. “Look, I menaced lots of people, I got them fired, I made deals, I maneuvered. I swelled our ranks, adding several worthy movers and shakers to fend off the previous council and all those who fancy leadership without our permission.”

A spectre’s laugh is perhaps even more frightening than its scowl or sigh. Its chuckle rolls over slowly, laboriously like the cold and massive engine of a war machine.

“Movers and shakers,” said Sandhop. “The term is comical to our ear. What do you village idiots think you move and shake? Your sphere of influence is the size of a farthing, whereas the Gibbs are the largest landowners in all of Texas. Surely you know that.”

Don faltered again. He knew only his own worth and a little of the portfolios of his rich closest associates.

“This is a town of a mere twenty-eight thousand free souls and only an eighth of them vote,” the Spectre resumed. “This is how it has always been. And so it has always been that the largest export of our city is parolees. All over the world, one says, ‘Huntsville, Texas’ and it means prisons and the busiest death house in the free world. Good for tourism, I’d say.”

“Are you not Little Eddie Sandhop, the one who worked his way up from bottom to top?” said Don. “If something’s rotten in Huntsville, it’s your fault, not mine.”

“Back in my day, we knew how to keep the rabble calm and at bay, but you have increased their numbers by increasing your own, by admitting all into the inner circle who hate who you hate and support your retail schemes, ” Sandhop said. “That has never been the golden key.”

“Common purpose, soldiers in arms. Do you say that isn’t how it’s done?” Don said incredulously.

The Ghost cast its vacant eyes over the convivial scene. “Who are all these people? That crook over there, the pole dancer and the hairy-faced redneck over here, that loud mouth constructioneer, those grasping harlots, these angry and crass low-church Christians. The Gibbs are a refined and worldly people. Where did you come upon these rustics and lickspittle?”

“They want the same thing you do, Ed,” Don said.

“They do not,” said Sandhop’s Ghost, pointing his ghostly finger. “We do things one way around here and everybody knew it, or, alas, they did.”

Then Don, watching his near future unfold, brightened as he saw himself enter the gathering with his wife on his arm. Everyone turned to greet them.

“See, they like me,” Don told the Ghost. “They really like me.”

“Zeus’s beard,” the Spectre said wearily. “They’re just being civil.”


At the chiming of the clock, someone sitting in a chair near the bed struck a match and lit a cigarette. Don watched its red glow intensify as the smoking spectre took a deep drag.

“Jack Wagamon?” Don whispered fearfully. “Is that you?”

The ghost began hacking and snuffed out the cigarette. “Actually, I don’t smoke, but I thought it would be a nice touch. Turn on the light by your bed.”

So Don flipped on the light and squinted at the ghost in the chair. He was a young man in a trench coat and Forties fedora pulled down over his eyes.

“Show yourself, Spectre,” Don said tremulously.

“I can’t,” said the Ghost. “It’s my mother. She couldn’t handle the scandal if it got out.”

“What do I have to do with that?”

The Spectre smiled. The part of his face Don could see was Dick Tracy handsome with its square jaw and chiseled manliness. “A lot, councilman. Now out of bed and on your feet. One last stop.”

“I won’t go with you unless you reveal yourself,” Don said.

“They call me Fractal Bob,” said the Ghost. And just then a gorgeous blonde gun moll popped in, standing behind Bob with a ghostly pistol pointed at Don’s head. “And she is Carissa.”

“You heard him,” Carissa said. “Get up.”

Don gladly obeyed.

“You’re the ghosts of Christmas Future, I presume,” he said as he found himself with his two companions in the middle of a chilly fog. All he could see, aside from their stylishly dead silhouettes, was his bare feet on turf grass. “What is this place?”

They began to walk through the fog until it cleared, revealing a large, half-finished brick school house. Don knew this place, and he began to smile.

“Knock off the creepy smirk, Buster,” said the beautiful gun moll.

“This is Gibbs land and this is a new school,” Don said. “The bond issue must have passed! So when will the new middle school be finished?”

“It won’t be,” said the ghost of Fractal Bob. “Typical Huntsville. The school hired an unqualified contractor who had cost overruns out the ass and the district ran out of money.”

The two ghosts led Don inside the half-finished structure, where weeds grew knee high from cracks in the concrete foundation. “But look,” Bob said, “they woulda had this bitch wired for hundreds of plugs. Just what you all wanted.”

Don and his ghosts popped in and out of every section of town so that Don could see the decay in essential services and loss of the city’s inner charm. “The hospital only takes inmates now. Civilians have to drive to Conroe or Madisonville,” Bob said, as the three of them hovered above the interstate. “You should see Madisonville and New Waverly these days. Crazy growth there, but a shit ton of our local businesses failed, thanks to you and your tax breaks to chain and big box stores.”

“And the Huntsville Item folded,” Carissa said.

Don clapped his hands with glee. “See, there’s a silver lining in every bad situation. Pray tell, Spectre, what deserving scourge befell them?”

“They kept running George Russell’s letters and then one day they plastered George all over the front page,” she said, “and you all convinced the local businesses that were left to cancel their advertising.”

“Merry Christmas to me! That’s wonderful,” Don said. “I suppose somebody started a new paper more friendly to our cause.”

“Yup,” said Bob, “but it died too, just like the Huntsville Morning News. They didn’t know shit about running a dying industry. And without a newspaper to read the news from every day, KSAM went silent, too. So now Average Joe doesn’t even know who’s county judge or who sits on city council. The latest crop of movers and shakers have all moved to The Woodlands.”

“Maybe without a local newspaper to make them feel important, they realized they were just the little kings and queens of nothing,” Carissa said.

“You smug spectres, how is it you have the nerve to be so irreverent, so blasphemous and so impudent?” Don said.

Then Don found himself again enshrouded by fog, and his spirit guides were gone. A figure approached, striding deliberately at Don as he stood there shivering in his fog-dampened jammies. Just as he was about to call out to the figure, he recognized it. Ed Sandhop, now without chains or other supernatural encumbrances.

“Who’s left then?” Don asked Sandhop, “if my movers and shakers are all gone?”

“We are,” Sandhop said. “And the people who are content to do as they’re told.”

“What has become of my family? What about my church and Alpha Omega Academy?”

“All fine,” Sandhop said. “All as quiet as church mice. No more fighting, no more factions, no more letters to the editor. No more obstacles. We have one way to run this town and you couldn’t handle it.”

“But what of city council?” Don said. “I so dreamed of becoming mayor one day.”

Sandhop smiled as though he were enjoying a private joke. “You’re not on the list,” he said. “Sorry.”

Then Sandhop extended his arm and pointed his finger, directing Don into the fog, and Don was terrified the Phantom had condemned him to endless wandering. “No, Spirit! Oh no, no!”

The Phantom’s finger pointed the way unrelentingly.

“Spirit!” Don cried, clutching at its sport coat. “Hear me! I am not the man I was. I can be more sinister and controlling; you know I have it in me. I can get better at manipulating the course of events. I can cast out the rubes and the peasants from the inner sanctum while protecting the likes of you and me. Jane, she once believed in me. Ask her now for some recommendation of my worth.”

But the Phantom wavered not.

“Surely you’re not saying Jane is nothing more than overseer herself, that her chain is as long as yours and mine,” Don said.

The finger.

“Why show me this, if I am past all hope?” In his agony, Don caught the spectral hand. It sought to free itself, but he was strong in his entreaty, and detained it. The Spirit, stronger yet, repulsed him.

Holding up his hands in a last prayer to have his fate reversed, Don saw an alteration in the Phantom’s face and dress. It shrunk, collapsed, and dwindled down into a bedpost.


Don awoke with a start in his own bed. His dear wife lay beside him and he shook her awake to share the revelation that had come to him over the course of these three terrible visitations.

“Where’s some paper and something to write with!” Don said. “I must make a hit list right away. I’ve got to be everything Ed Sandhop was and then some. Hurry, help me! Or the whole town is going to hell in a hand basket. I have seen it!”

“I’ll make some coffee,” she said.

Don had a dozen names on the hit list before the coffee was ready.

“Shouldn’t you be buying turkeys for indigent families or sending Christmas cards to the naysayers, Don?” his wife said.

“I’ve got to call the churches and Jane, Sally, who else? I can’t be expected to fill out this new hit list by myself. You know those naysayers have one and we can’t be without one, either,” Don said. “Wait, I’m sure Jane’s got names left over from Sandhop’s day. The list just needs to be updated.”

Then Don’s body suddenly felt very heavy, weighted by coils of iron. He looked down and saw the yards of heavy links that Sandhop had been schlepping around in Don’s wretched dreams.

“You totally missed the point,” his wife said. “Ed Sandhop gave his life to the Gibbs when he could have done anything, gone anywhere, been anybody. And here we are, and you’re doing the same thing. Don, we’ll always be newcomers here if we stay here twenty more years.”

Don felt on the verge of tears. “But I’m a mover and a shaker,” he said. “If we’re not ‘in’ we’re ‘out.’ If we’re not ‘in,’ we might as well be named Wagamon.”

“What does that matter?” his wife said. “Huntsville is a pretty place where good people can live a simple and uncomplicated life. There are lovely people here and fun things to do, things that accomplish next to nothing but uplift the soul or gladden the heart. There is so much that people like us can do to make this a better place, a happier place, a caring place for those less fortunate. Live and let live, Don, and you set yourself free. You’ll be saved once you realize you have nothing to prove.”

So Don did it; he stood and let the chains of ambition and discord fall from him, and his soul soared. His wife beamed at him with the love and joy of their first days together.

“God bless us, everyone,” she said.

Cake or Death?


Carissa and I had come from the summer cotillion that I had been forced to attend. I say “forced” because no bloke wants to attend a cotillion, which involves a monkey suit, pre-cotillion purchases of chrysanthemums bound in satin ribbon and treacherous pins and the need to stay sober enough to remain gentlemanly yet wittily charming at all times, even when being asked questions that rake through scabbed-over ego ulcerations such as, “So what do you do for a living, Bob?”

By the end of the evening I had acquitted myself well—except for a miniscule tear in a strategic piece of red lace, my fault though not through a boorish gesture but the unfortunate snag of a cufflink as I removed her wrap. “Don’t worry, Bobby baby,” Carissa said. “It can be mended.”

“I’ll buy you a new one,” I said, and she smiled gently because Bob actually can’t put together enough change for a domestic beer during happy hour.

I dropped Carissa off at the family compound at Elkins Lake and went to mine, where I found a woman about my age sitting in the living room with my parents. Nobody was drunk, so I figured she must be a newcomer to the neighborhood. She jumped to her feet as soon as I walked in, still in my suit and tie. The bright gleam in her eye said she was happy to see me, yet I noticed right away she was wearing a big rock and platinum band on her ring finger.

“Yes, he is very handsome,” my mother said, “but he doesn’t have a job and no prospects, and despite all you see here, he’s not independently wealthy.”

So, maybe they were drunk.

“Mom, I have a girlfriend,” I said and then I smiled at the new neighbor. “And you’re married.”

The woman blushed and extended her hand. She wore a yellow floral dress with a retro full skirt, she had bobbed red hair, brown eyes, and a golden brown tan. She looked like a perky girl detective, like she must have driven up in a roadster. “Jennifer Wisocki,” she said.

“She doesn’t look Japanese and neither does her husband,” my dad said.

“I bet Wisocki is Polish,” I said, while she beamed at me in a way I was accustomed to. It was usually followed by, “Oh, you have such cute dimples,” to which I responded, “Yes, but they’re a bitch to shave.”

“Jennifer has just moved down here with her husband. He has a job at the college,” my mother said.

“We love it here,” Jennifer said. “We’ve met so many nice people.”

My dad snorted. My mother elbowed him in the ribs. Jennifer’s eyes were still on mine, so I pulled another smile from the reserve of cotillion charm still left in me. “I’m glad.”

Then Jennifer left. I went upstairs to hang up my suit and then I came back downstairs for a glass of water. Mother was at the kitchen table working a crossword puzzle.

“How was the cotillion?”

“Don’t ever do that to me again.”

“How did Carissa like it?”

“She loved it.”

“She has money, Bob,” Mom said. “You do whatever she wants. If she likes cotillions, you like cotillions.”

“Ma, I want to take care of her, not the other way around,” I said, swallowing a Xanax.

“You’d better get cracking, Bob,” said my father, standing in the threshold in his PJs. “That Carissa has the longest legs I’ve ever seen.” Looking at me over my mother’s head bent over the crossword puzzle, he nodded at me significantly. “Your mother’s very long waisted,” he said, putting his hands on his own hips. “Little short legs.”

“You two are disgusting,” my mother said.

“So, you met a new friend,” I said.

“You sure Wisocki isn’t Japanese?” my father said.

“What’s her story?” I said.

“She’s thirty-seven. Used to make good money herself but left it so she could come here with her husband. From Dallas. Two little boys. She’s a Baptist. I don’t know about him. If he’s Polish, I guess he’s Catholic, right?” Mom said, never looking up. “Renting a place around the corner from the Mondays until they can buy. What’s a three-letter word for ‘anger’?”

“Ire,” I said. “I-R-E.”

“Oh, I knew that.”

That was back in August. We didn’t see Jennifer Wisocki again until the week after Labor Day when she returned the plate my mother used to deliver brownies to her boys on their first day of school. But Mom wasn’t home, just Carissa and I. We were lounging in the shade of the backyard with the water mister blowing on us, and we invited Jennifer in for Chianti and antipasto. She was nothing like the woman I met on cotillion night. The playful gleam in her eyes, the flowery extravagance of her presence was gone, withered.

“This is very nice. So unexpected,” she said and smiled wanly. “And you’re such a gorgeous couple.”

Carissa cut her eyes over the bowl of her wine glass at me and gave me a look uniquely hers, one that conveys warm, silky and secret streams of carnality. I’m sure Jennifer never noticed, but I had to cross my legs. “So, Jenn. How’s it going?”

Jennifer’s wholesome freckled face crumpled, and we were afraid she might cry.

“We can’t find a house to buy. They’re all ridiculously over priced for the space and condition they’re in. The schools are terrible. My boys are repeating work they had in Dallas this time last year. It’s like they’ve both been held back a grade. There’s no good place to buy groceries. I can’t find a job. My doctor asked me what church we went to and then got irritated when I wouldn’t tell him. Nobody ever asked us that in Dallas. What does that mean? If we don’t go to his church he won’t treat us? And we’ve switched congregations twice. The first two someone said something horrible, and one time it was the pastor himself. And they wanted to make sure we knew who to vote for in the local election in November. At church! And we’re not even registered to vote yet.”

“Welcome to Huntsville,” I said.

“How do people like you live here?” Jennifer said, and then she did cry, two crystal  orbs rolling down the tanned and prominent cheekbones of her girl detective face.

“Get her a tissue,” Carissa said, and I jumped up, grateful to have a chore that would take me away for a moment.

I was conflicted, of course, having been born and raised in Huntsville, having missed these tall pines, spring wildflowers and the drawl of soft voices when away in cold, hard places like Boston and New York. But I knew exactly what Jennifer had run into.

Carissa met me in the kitchen as I was rushing back with a box of tissues. “Don’t try to recruit her,” she said urgently.

“For what?”

“Naysayers,” Carissa said. “She’s also met George Russell.”

“Crap,” I said.

“Don’t talk shit about anyone, don’t call anyone a crook, a liar or a hater,” Carissa said. “Just be sweet and follow my lead.”

We rejoined our guest, who was still weeping. “Tell him what you just told me,” Carissa said, pouring Jennifer another glass of Chianti.

“Oh, well, I was just telling Carissa that my husband and I were invited to a party and [this older lady] pulled me aside. We had a wonderful chat for a few minutes and I really liked her. She seemed very smart and on top of things, a real go-getter. I wanted to sign up for whatever she needed me to do. Then she started telling me about how Huntsville was infested with evil people and that Richard and I must stay away from them at all costs. She didn’t say ‘or else,’ but she might as well have.”

Of course, Carissa and I knew who this lady was and I bet you do, too.

“I kept asking her which people she meant and what they did that made them so evil.”  Jennifer’s eyes welled again and she dabbed at them with tissue. “She told me about this horrible man—this crazy George Russell person—who makes pornography about young girls being stabbed to death and their bodies eaten. So I just about died when I finally ran into him. He  looked down the front of my dress and then asked me to be in one of his movies. Just like Mrs.— said he would.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said, and Carissa patted Jennifer’s shoulder.

“ Mrs.— said this man was in control of a group of zombies who do terrible things to anyone who tries to run for office or start a new business. They make up things about you and call and email you to tell you if you don’t stop, it will only get worse. And they’re growing all the time. They’re evil, she said. Pure evil. And they can only be stopped if the good people here stay away from them, far, far away. So Richard and I, of course, we want to be good people, too. So we thought we’d stick close to Mrs.— and her people. Go to the doctor’s office they told us to go to. Have lunch or dinner with who we’re supposed to. But it all started feeling very ‘Rosemary’s Baby.’ And then one night Richard and I got a sitter and met some of his students at [a certain bar]. A few days later I got an invitation to one of the ladies’ clubs and, without even thinking, I mentioned that we’d been to that [bar].

‘Oh, no!’ they said. ‘You can’t be seen in there. That’s one of their strongholds, the evil people.’  I just laughed it off and said something about not seeing anyone with horns and a forked tail in there, but these women didn’t think it was funny at all, and I haven’t been invited back.

“Then yesterday one of the professors called Richard an asshole when he caught him explaining eminent domain to a group of students and accused him of hating veterans. But Richard fought in the first Gulf War and his dad died in Vietnam. The guy said, ‘Look, you’d better pick sides quick in this town or we’ll pick them for you.’  Pick sides? I just don’t understand!”

It was all I could do to keep my mouth shut as Jennifer sobbed a few seconds more. Then she dried her eyes and looked off into the sunny backyard where the lawn sprinklers were going full blast just like the water mister despite a third month of water restrictions.

“It’s like being invited in for cake when the choice is ‘or death,’ ” Jennifer said. “Tea and cake or death? We’re moving to The Woodlands.”

“Oh, no. I hope you don’t do that,” Carissa said. “We need nice, normal people to move here and stay.”

“That’s right, Jenn,” I said. “You should stand up for yourself. Socialize with whomever you want to wherever you want to. Pick your own doctor and your own church.”

Jennifer lifted her chin defiantly. “You’re right. I should.”

“That’s the spirit,” I said. “Put campaign signs in your yard. Vote for whoever you want to. Write letters to the editor, speak up at public meetings. It’s your right as an American cit—”

“Wait a minute,” Jennifer said, her eyes widening in sudden recognition. “Oh, my God, I haven’t been sitting here with—. You’re not—. You’re mother isn’t—? And you’re father, he’s not—?” She jumped to her feet. “Oh, shit! You’re him! The evil son!”

And then Jennifer almost tripped over the barbecue pit to get to the sliding glass door, which—thankfully—gave me time to throw it open before she burst through it and cut herself to pieces. Carissa and I watched her stumble through the house and out the front door. Too bad for her it was still daylight.

Carissa smacked me upside the head.

“Nice job, Patrick Henry,” she said. “We almost got one.”

Your land is my land


Once upon a time there was a little girl named Dana who pulled the wings off butterflies until she realized she could get her brother, Alvin, to do it and it was just as much fun.

Dana sent Al around with a big fat magic marker to write her name on other people’s shit, and when she wanted it, she sent Al to take it. Then, by the time they were teenagers, Dana and Alvin were stealing cars. Here’s how that worked. They would find some hooptie for sale in the classifieds and as soon as somebody bought it, Dana would send Al around to scare them into selling it for half of what they’d paid for it.

“We didn’t know this car was for sale,” Al would say. “And we need it to take our crippled old granny to the doctor.”

“Fuck off, greaser,” the buyer would say. “I answered the ad in the paper and bought it fair and square.”

“Sell it to us—or else,” Al would say, clenching his teeth and balling his fists.

“Or else what, you juvenile delinquent?” the buyer would say.

And then he would find out. Al would come in the night with a tow truck and winch, haul off the car and it would sit in granny’s driveway until she really was old and crippled. But Al would leave behind a little cash on the buyer’s doorstep. Not exactly grand theft auto. And this served the greater good.

Of course, I am totally making this up. I don’t know if SHSU President Doctor Dana Gibson has a little brother, and even though I can totally see her pulling the wings off things, I don’t know for certain she did that either.

I do know that she’s a coward and so do you.

That’s why you don’t see her anywhere in the mix in Huntsville’s latest reality show episode, “SHSU Land Grab.” Doctor Dana is up in the Ivory Tower filing her acrylic nails while her poor secretary fends off the public and Al Hooten, the Hand of the Queen, makes a fool of himself in the press.

Don’t you wish you were at the meeting in which Dana and Al cooked up the best public relations scheme in Sam Houston’s history?

Dana: “What are we going to do, Al? The regents didn’t give us permission to bid on the old Armory building yet and now that tattooed A-Rab is gonna get it!”

Al: “Cool your jets, Dana. I’ll tell council to eighty-six the asshole’s bid. I’ll say we didn’t know it was for sale and Maalouf swooped in on his camel and stole it out from under our Master Plan. I’ll bring Yebra and some other humble-pie, buzz-cut veterans with me for show and tell during public comment. Piece of cake, sisterwoo.”

Dana: “You’re sure there’s no public record emails showing that we asked for the appraised value of the land twelve days before the bid closed?”

Al: “Pish posh, my queen. Leave this to your Hand. All the usual fixes are in. We can count on Mac to step out of the room while we bludgeon the A-Rab to a pulp. And, of course, there’s Don Johnson and his five guaranteed votes.”

Dana: “Ah, yes. Well just for good measure call the Plumber and tell him to show up at council in a red, white and blue shirt to underscore the point with the peasants. I mean public. Are you sure we can’t have them pipe in the theme from ‘Patton’ while you speak?”

But in a stunning upset on July 2, things didn’t go SHSU’s way. City council accepted Tarek Maalouf’s bid for $50,000 over the $600,000 appraised value. Cha-ching! And Hooten stormed out of council chambers in a transvestite-grade huff. (Also, it’s not nice to use veterans to lie to the public. I hear they don’t like that too much.)

Hooten’s head might be on a pike right now if Gibson had another good candidate for Right Hand. You know how capricious these queens can be. But Hooten’s still coming to work. And we don’t know why Don Johnson didn’t deliver what HMH board gal pal Gibson wanted or why Joe the Plumber of Ward 1 didn’t vote with the rest of council to accept the sole bid for the land. Council’s entire discussion occurred, probably illegally according to TOMA, behind closed doors in executive session. (I like what you did, just not the way you did it.)

Too bad the Huntsville Item missed it when, at the August 20 council meeting, Emmett finally revealed why he would rather kiss SHSU’s ass than add commercial property to the tax rolls. He’s ditched economic development to campaign on Prohibition.

First he wanted to send the cops to shut down Maalouf’s bars on Sam Ave for public “harassment” because of the noise they send bouncing over the rooftops of Ward 1. Chief Lunsford explained that, this not being a totalitarian police state, such a move was probably not legal.

Then Emmett went on and on about the fire station sharing the driveway with what he is sure will be yet another Maalouf bar. Mayor Woodward assured him the fire chief was FINE with it and Tish Humphrey—yes, you read that right—politely told him to shut the fuck up so council could move on.

The Item didn’t even mention the Bizzaro World spectacle of Jack Wagamon commending council for acting in favor of economic development while invoking the infamous words of Lanny Ray, “taking the hard right over the easy wrong,” as Don Johnson smiled benevolently.

If things keep going like this, errbody in HTX might one day get along, and I would be out of a job.

Tarek spoke at council, too, showing signs he’s dug in, no matter how many times Gibson’s good ol’ errand boys wheedle him or Greg Abbott’s thugs threaten him. If Tarek can hold onto his land, that might save other small businesses in the blue and orange zones that Gibson has claimed for her empire building. And Al and Dana might learn what it feels like when a couple of bullies finally get punched in the nose and all the other kids laugh.

How to become a naysayer


“So,” I said to my father after he’d watched his first Huntsville City Council meeting since voting “no” on the doomed $65.5 million school bond election, “you want to become a naysayer. Well, I applaud your goal. But becoming a naysayer is, as you realize, a significant and life-changing event. It is not a small matter by any means.”

“I understand,” my father said. “Are you going to turn me away three times like the Jews?”

I shook my head and smiled warmly, my hand on his shoulder. “When a hater like you wants to become a naysayer, the rabbis—I mean the rabble rousers—are required to try to dissuade him. Only the very sincere make it through the entire process.”

“I’m ready,” my father said. “That Don Johnson guy is a lying jerk. And most of the rest of them are morons and tools. Where do I sign up? Wagamon Printing?”

“Patience, Dad,” I said. “Becoming a naysayer means that most of what you were taught about economic development and raising taxes until now will be irrelevant, and in many cases wrong. You must drop everything taught to you by whatever gr–d-heads you once followed or read about. People sometimes ask me, ‘Can I convert to naysayerism and still believe in the Old Mayors?’ The answer is no. This is not something negotiable in naysayerism. Naysayer doctrine about Gr–d is core and inviolate. Non-naysayer beliefs about Gr–d invalidate a conversion (and faith in Bill Green is a prime example of a non-naysayer belief about Gr–d, no matter what anyone tells you). So this could be a major change for anyone contemplating conversion to naysayerism. If this is difficult for you, then you should not be considering conversion at all.”

Dad poured us both another round of single malt Scotch as we sat under the dimmed chandelier above the dining room table. In the kitchen, my mother was baking an apple pie to take to a Christian Women’s luncheon.

“Okay, so no more rounds of golf with Bill Green,” he said, “and I’ll pull over and piss on his monument on Veterans’ Memorial at least once a week.”

“You must also accept the fact that the Constitution, penal code, open government acts and city charter define what is right and what is wrong, what is a conflict of interest and what is public record, what elevates a person and what lowers him. Human beings do not make those determinations. Chamber presidents, hospital CEOs, judges and DAs, city council members and county commissioners don’t actually police themselves, and every decision they make is subject to established law,” I said.

“Got it,” Dad said. “I can no longer admire a backroom deal, the strong-arm tactic or an illegal executive session.”

“Dad, your lifestyle will also change, as well as the way you think about many things. Even the meaning of some words will change, especially if you have been a hater: words like ‘civility,’ ‘community partner,’ ‘economic development,’ ‘synergy,’ ‘indictment,’ and others.”

I reached across the table and, for the first time since I was eight or nine years old, I took my father’s hand. His eyes in their baggy sockets welled with tears.

“It also means that your relationships will change. Not all your friends will be happy that you’ve become a naysayer. Worse yet, your family members—even Mom—might disown you, as often happens.

“When your Rotary Club buddies sit down to eat a meal, you will often not be allowed to join them. You won’t even be able to attend some of their joyous occasions, like poker games and the Chamber Gala. Nor will you be allowed to attend Jane Monday’s Derby Day parties or sing in the Men’s Choir.”

“Man,” Dad said, shaking his head. “Your mother’s going to shit about Derby Day.”

“She’ll get over it,” I said.

“What about George Russell? Is he going to start making sense all of a sudden? Will I want to bank-roll slasher porn and forget to wash my feet?”

“No!” my mother yelled from the kitchen.

“But you might vote for a known Democrat if he’s running for City Council,” I said.

“Shit,” Dad said, his face in his hands. By the mournful way in which he ran his hands over his nearly bald head, I was sure this was the deal breaker.

“As a convert to naysayerism,” I said, “you will be a naysayer—a full-fledged naysayer. Think about the word ‘naysayer’ for a minute. It’s a title we bear proudly, yet it’s a word that comes from many mouths as a curse and insult. Of course, that’s stupid. It’s like when a little boy thinks he’s insulting a girl by calling her ‘girl!’ Not only is it not an insult, but it should be borne proudly and openly.”

“Proudly and openly,” Dad said.

“Yes, once you become a naysayer, you will bleed naysayer blood,” I said.

“So if they round up all you naysayers in the middle of the night and gas you in a chamber, they’ll come for me, too?”

“Yes!” my mother yelled from the kitchen.

“And once you have become a naysayer, then the Old Mayors, the chamber of commerce, the Rotarians, all the churches in town, even the Optimist Club, will say you are always a naysayer, even if you stop believing,” I said.

“Can’t I just sit back and vote against their tax and spend horseshit when it comes up?” Dad said.

“If it were only that simple. When you join the naysayers, you become equally responsible for watching out for their every shady move and you suffer with us together,” I said. “I must warn you of this, however: Do not announce your intentions in a public forum over the Internet. And think twice before writing a letter to the editor. If you do, you are likely to get dozens of emails from every sort of crank and idiot that exists. Then, after Mickey Evans gets wise to you, you’ll be off their email list and added to ours. It isn’t worth the annoyance.”

Mom, while eavesdropping in the kitchen, had become inspired. Bright-eyed with urgency, she ran into the dining room.

“Honey, maybe you could reform the naysayers, teach them how to be less nasty and more reasonable. Just like this thing, this monument to Bill Green on the veterans’ parkway. There was no reason to talk about the man like that on TV, like he was a common criminal. Was there? I mean, if this is really just about raising taxes and school bond elections, you can be nice about it, can’t you?”

Dad wavered, obviously in the final struggle with his inner demons. I refreshed his drink.

“I’ll be as nice as they let me be. But as soon as they start pulling shit, I’m going to throw down,” Dad said. “We’ve got to stand up and be counted.  We need to show up at public meetings in uniform or something so these jokers realize just how many of us there are now.”

“Maybe you could wear SHSU polo shirts,” Mom said.  “Everybody’s for the Bearkats. That looks unifying rather than dividing.”

“We’d look like a bunch of bright-orange pussies,” Dad said.

“Mom, the haters don’t want to unify this town,” I said. “They need division. It’s their smoke screen. They’d lose almost everyone in their ranks but the most hard-core grafters if they didn’t lie and steal and then bait everyone who disagrees with them into looking like paranoid assholes.”

Dad rose to his feet. “We need armor and pole-axes. We need horses and banner men. We need a flag!”

“How about something like this?” my mother said.


“No, no, no,” my father said. “Too many of us have been tiptoeing around these crooks for decades. Let’s show them we’re serious:”


“Holy shit,” my mother said. “Bob, talk some sense into your father!”

“I bet Delora King would hoist this bad boy,” Dad said.

“Oh, I’m sure she would, ” Mom said. “Tish Humphrey still cries when she talks about what Delora said to her at her first council meeting.”

“And you can forget ‘naysayers,’ Bob. That word belongs to the victims, not the victors, and winter is coming,” my father said. “Lock and load, kid. It’s election season. From now on, we’re not naysayers. We’re NAYSLAYERS.”

Just then, the oven timer went “ding.”

“Oh, good Lord,” said my mother as she ran to take out the apple pie before it burned.  “Converts are always the worst.”