The Morrow Family Saga, Series 4, Book 1: Once Around the Ride, Chapter 13

Shasta got her mother and father onto the plane from Des Moines to LA in record time. getting them packed and into the car was like herding turtles…or maybe that was herding cats. She smiled. It was always a joy to do things with her parents. Too bad Nattie hadn’t seen that. Maybe she would have been in a different position now.

Still, Nattie had always been different. She had always marched to her own drum. There was no reason to her rhyme and no real rhythm to her life. Just a haphazard inconsistency that had marked every step of her life. Now was no different.

Chance Spencer had been good for Natalia, that had been apparent. Their lifestyle, however, had been less than desirable. But at least they had been able to supply a comfortable life for their children, at least at the beginning. But now, the year after Chance had died, Nattie was about to join him. the disease that had taken him was now eating away at her.

It was unfair. Nattie should be healthy and happy. But no. The minute she had found happiness, she lost it. Again. for the third and final time.

Shasta smiled sadly. The decade of free love had had its consequences. Seemed nothing had been truly free in the end.  But why did Nattie have to pay the price as well? Why couldn’t she get a get out of jail free card? After all, she still had a lot of life left in her to experience.

Her father’s voice brought her out of her thoughts.“Shaz. Shaz. There wasn’t anything you or I could have done to save her from this. You were never meant to be your sister’s keeper. Matt should have never had to do what he was forced t do either. Nattie was on a self-destructive path long before she left home. We tried to keep her on the straight and narrow, Lord knows we did, but she had a mind of her own.

“She put herself in the predicament that facilitated her rape. She fell for Toby’s lies. She wouldn’t listen to anyone who tried to tell her that the boy was just pure evil. She thought he was the way she was going to find her key to happiness and stardom. Unfortunately, he shattered all those dreams for her and stomped on her heart by taking her innocence.

“I tried to fix it all for her after it happened, but I just didn’t know how to approach it. I had already taken away the power of his old man through shedding light on his fraud. I even tried to take away the boy’s power, but I failed.”

She smiled and took her father’s hand gently. “Pops, you did your best. Just think of the thousands of other girls you prevented Tobias from hurting after the rape. He went away to war to get away from going to prison. He went to Vietnam thinking he could go, then return a forgotten menace. When you chased him out of Des Moines, you save more girls than you realize.” She squeezed his hand gently to let him know that she approved of all that he had done for her sister and everyone else.

***

Yuri Venacek arrived in LA with his cousin Marty. The two had been business partners in Dallas for several years and decided to travel together to say farewell to their cousin. It was sad that it had come to this, but Marty had filled Yuri in on Nattie and her…alternative lifestyle. He could’ve sworn that he’d seen Nicolai Morrow at LAX and if that was the case, this was the end. Nothing had ever dragged Nick back into the family circle unless it was deep and extremely serious.

Still, he hoped to catch up on things with Nick as well as whoever else they would run into. It was always good to see family, even if it was during times like this. Not that Uri didn’t feel sad for Natalia, but everyone has seen this coming. Marcus, Uri’s brother, was somewhere in transit. He had said he would be there. But where was he?

Yuri shook his head. Marty’s sister, Dani, was still not in either. Neither were many of the others. Shasta had gone back to Des Moines to help his uncle Michael and aunt Valeria pack and make it to the plane on time. There were Morrows from all over the globe coming. Some had never met Nattie, others remembered her when she was young. Still, family was family and the Morrows were one family that believed in being close knit.

When one was hurt, the rest would come to their aid. When one died, the rest would come to mourn. And the Venaceks had become a part of that family.  A grand family it was too.

Yuri and Marty made their way to the hotel to check in. Once checked in, they headed for the hospital. There, they knew they would find the rest of the family. There, they would also find answers.

***

Matt sat at the judges’ table with Tandy and Sal. Before them, an aspiring vocalist was prancing back and forth on the stage. She certainly had the showmanship part down, but she still needed way too much work for them to consider. Beauty and showmanship were only two of the prerequisites, not the whole list.

Matt interrupted her. “Sorry, but you aren’t what we are looking for. If you like, I can add you to the list for possible backup singers.” He shrugged questioningly.

She blushed, having not anticipated his response. Usually, an audition got a thank you, we’ll get in touch with you later, not an invite to be backup after an initial rejection. But she had just received an invite to be backup. It was better than nothing. “S-sure, Mr. Morrow. That would be a dream!”

He smiled. “Good. it seems a better fit for you than fronting. You seem way to nervous for the lead. Being backup will help you work on that.”

She smiled nervously and nodded, then left the stage.

“Next.” Sal’s baritone made the command boom through the arena.

Savanna appeared on stage.

Tandy looked her over. “Name?”

She smiled. “Savanna Morrison.”

Matt smiled back, reassuringly. “Alright, show us what you’ve got.”

She smiled. “Sure bet.”

The music began. Matt watched her as she waited for the exact length of the intro and began on cue without being told. Her eyes, closed in concentration, periodically seemed closed so tight that they might stick shut. Then, she would relax. She seemed lost in the music, totally engulfed and a part of it. She fit the sound and the sound fit her.

Matt interrupted her, cutting the audition short. “You’ve got the job.”

She looked at the other two judges. Tandy and Sal nodded in affirmation. Even though she felt like screaming and jumping wildly, she knew it could blow her chances of keeping the gig. She smiled and threw her fist in the air triumphantly. “Rock on!”

Matt smiled. “We start rehearsal tomorrow on new songs. Bring any songs or lyrics you might have with you for possible consideration.”

She looked at him. “What time?”

Tandy cleared his throat. “Be at the studio by nine. Matt will be there when he gets done at the hospital. The rest of us will be there to work on rhythm and backing vocals.”

Matt smiled and winked. “I will be bringing in your contract as well, so be ready to sign your soul away.”

She stifled a giggle. She knew he wasn’t serious about the whole signing the soul away thing. It had just been made in jest. “I will be there bright and early.”

***

Belinda entered Tahoe at dusk. She had to find a motel quickly. She hated to be out after dark. She supposed that was the reason she had never really felt comfortable in her relationship with Matt. All those late nights.

Of course, she hadn’t cared much for his family either—not that she’d had one of her own. She couldn’t remember her parents but that was probably because she had run away from home at fifteen so that she could be a groupie. And she had lived her dream. She had lived the glamorous life of a rock groupie.

But it really hadn’t been that glamorous. Maybe the sex had been great, but the lifestyle itself left one empty. Longing. But for what?

Perhaps it had been over-glamorized. She took in a deep breath. What she needed was to find a musician who didn’t have any family. Someone she could…nudge closer to the grave until they finally fell in and left her with their entire fortune. It was a nice dream.

But who would want a used toy? Surely not the world weary legends. Of course not. And up-and-comers weren’t rich enough for her blood.

She snapped out of her thoughts as she pulled into the parking lot of a Holiday Inn. She parked and went into the office.

“May I help you?” The clerk didn’t even look up.

“I need a room for the night.”

The clerk scooted the register out to where she could sign it. “Please sign in.” he walked over to the board where the keys hung and took one down, then walked back to the desk and handed the key to her. “That’ll be thirty dollars.”

She handed him $30 and took the key. She turned from the desk and looked at the key chain. Room 231. That was cool.

The Morrow Family Saga, Series 4, Book 1: Once Around the Ride, Chapter 12

Nicolai Morrow was late getting in to LAX. He was the eldest member of the Morrow family. He had been away on business when he received Shasta’s call. Like his brothers, he had strayed from the family business. After all, Shasta had done well as CEO of Morrow Industries and had not needed anyone else to impede her progressive ideas.

Now, Halbrook, her eldest, had taken the reins and was leading the company into the new decade. Unlike their father, Shasta had known when to retire. Lord how he envied her, but in a good way. She’d been able to be a part of the company as it went through its changes while he’d fought in wars he knew to be unnecessary.

To Shasta and Nattie, he was a stranger. Neither had even so much as heard of him. After all, he had been away for most of Shasta and Natalia’ lives. Nick had served in Korea and Vietnam and had seen things he just as soon forget.

He’d even killed for reasons he knew to be wrong. He’d tortured for little to no reason, simply because his superior commanded him to do it. He had to live with that shame. At least his superior had not lived long enough to continue his reign of terror.

He smiled. Kendrick, the mysterious shadow warrior as he liked to call him, had appeared in the night with orders for Nick. Kill your commander and his lieutenants had been his command. Thus, he had picked those who had opposed Lieutenant Tobias French and had swept the command tents, killing all they could. But one had escaped.

His group had made it look as if the VC had swept through camp while they went on patrol. It wasn’t hard, since they’d swept a VC ammo and weapons dump a few days before Kendrick’s appearance. They’d used the Russian and Chinese made guns and ammo to do the deed, being mindful to not remove their service gloves until after it was over.

The one who had escaped had been on patrol and had been wounded, but had also escaped into the forest. Strangely enough, he had been the sole survivor of his patrol, making the whole thing suspicious. More suspicious than what Nick and his crew had done.

The following investigation concluded that the VC had indeed overrun the camp and had wiped out the whole command. Since his group had been slated for southern patrol, they had been discounted as suspects. One man’s word could not sway top command from their exoneration of Nick’s patrol.

After Vietnam, Nick had returned to the states after a brief assignment to Germany. Germany had been a side trip. He had not intended to do any more time in the military.

Once back stateside, he found that he was not wanted in many areas of the country. Iowa had been out as well. Few there remembered him and most of his friends had died in either war. He had been popular as a youth, but popularity was overrated now. He was more a shattered soul than a man. War had seen to that.

Korea had been his baptism of fire, Vietnam his descent into hell. Korea had been predictable. The Viet Cong had not. Korea had been a win. Vietnam had been a fail. There had been too many deaths between the two disputes. Too many young men had been killed. And for what?

Officially, they had died for their country and the concept of freedom. The reality was much darker. With the Cold War still in full swing, the U.S and other western countries that weren’t under “communism” tried to block the USSR and those countries considered Communist from spreading their influence to smaller, weaker nations. The problem was that Communism wasn’t a form of government, it was an economic system. The political systems that communist style economies tended to draw were authoritarian dictatorships that controlled everything from where you could piss to where you could die. Hell. they controlled the rationing of food that was supposed to be communally shared. In essence, those countries that were supposedly communistic were not really communistic. Communism, of and by itself, offered no real government structure. Ideally, communism allowed the leadership roles to be shared among all within the commune. There wasn’t supposed to be a central government, just the commune which supplied food, shelter, and all needed for the common good.

Still, the political parties in the US saw communism as a type of government and led their party members into believing the same pseudo-political crap that was designed to make the US feel superior to the countries that shared the same common economic system as the USSR. Of course, this did not help Americans in the pursuit of knowledge or understanding, just as their ignorance of world religions also kept them from fully understanding the Middle East and other countries that did not share a background in Christianity.

But America was never big in trying to understand much of anything except their own wants and desires. Hell. they didn’t even really understand how their own government worked or how the two parties should work together for the common good of all. No, they only understood that one party was supposed to be “liberal” while the other was supposed to be “conservative”. They feared homosexuals. They feared a new disease known as HIV/AIDS. They feared the atheists. They feared…just about everything.

They were blind to what was really going on. Corporations were creating reasons to send men and boys, even women, to wars that were unneeded. Corporations were taking over Washington. The common man had become a footnote in governance because of the growing greed of a minority. The same minority that tried to convince the masses to remain bigots and servants of the almighty dollar.

The noble experiment had failed. If Jefferson or Washington were to come back, they would definitely start another Revolution just to restore the government they had originally founded. hell. if Christ were to return, he would damn mankind for all his social blindness and unfounded hate. He would condemn the world so harshly for its distaste for growing in knowledge and wisdom. But, then, Americans-and their fellow “Christians” around the world-would probably institutionalize or re-crucify him simply because he would be preaching the exact opposite than what they chose to believe.

He shook his head. Sad how things went downhill in such a short time. the worst of it was that he was now too old to serve in another war, but he would want to die in battle before he had to watch the country sink any further in the gutter that both political parties had put it in. sure, Carter was a good man, and truly Christian too, but the President wasn’t the ones fucking things up. No, that responsibility lay with Congress. Their constant fighting, bickering, and the polarization that tended to separate the two halves seemed to keep the country from running at 100%.

Still, there were worse things out there. One in particular, a man by the name of Donald Trump, though still somewhat sensible, epitomized exactly the kind of person the country could not afford to put into office as President. Hell. he wasn’t even a man that Nick would stick in a management position. Yet, Don’s father had passed the young wannabe the reins of the real estate company he had built. That had been in the late 1970’s. Nick had watched as it happened.

Trump Real Estate would be lucky to survive Don. Nick shivered as he imagined just how inept and incompetent Don’s children would turn out to be. God. A monkey could do better than that prissy little shit.

Nick only hoped that the man would never run for President. That would destroy the country, polarize the nation even more than it already was. America couldn’t possibly be able to handle the strain of such a presidency.

Nick snapped out of his thoughts as he entered the hospital. Going to the information desk, he stood and waited for the attendant to come over to where he stood.

“Can I help you, sir?” The attendant seemed unnerved by his rough appearance.

“Natalia Morrow’s room.” He smiled, trying to break the tension.

“Morrow, Morrow, Morrow…no Morrows here, but there’s a Natalia Spencer in the ICU. She’s the mother of the rock star Matt Morrow, at least that is what she has said…”

Nick held his left hand up to silence the attendant. “That would be her. What room?”

“2218. That is second floor, room 218. The infectious disease wing of the ICU. Be sure to grab a mask to wear in if you want to go in and visit her.”

Nick didn’t like the attendant’s tone with that last comment. As if he was going to catch HIV through breathing the same air as his sister. God. What an idiot. He probably knew more about the virus than the doctor treating his sister and this idiot warned him to grab a fucking mask? Really?

He waved the attendant off and headed for the elevators. He would do this his way. He was the only one who could verify for his sister that the little asshole who’d raped her was dead. After all, he had been the one who killed the worthless little punk. As far as he was concerned, he had done his country a service that night. He had taken out Tobias French.

The Morrow Family Saga, Series 4, Book 1: Once Around the Ride, Chapter 11

Shasta had flown back to Des Moines to help her mother and father make the journey to L.A. She knew that this would likely be the last time either of her parents would make such a trip. They were getting too old to travel like they had when she and Nattie were young. Hell. they were too old.

Still, they deserved to see Nattie one last time. Perhaps she would give pops the forgiveness he so deserved and mean it. After all, pops needed to be able to forgive himself. The guilt had existed for too long. It needed to be laid to rest.

She snapped out of her thoughts as the taxi pulled into her parents’ drive. Mama stepped out to greet her. she hoped that pops was well. He wasn’t with her. She handed the driver the desired fare and got out of the taxi.

“Mama? Where’s Pops?” Her concern could be heard as she drew closer to her mother.

Valeria smiled. “He’s inside, dear. He-he is OK, just lost in thought lately. Mostly about how he might’ve handled your sister better when she was younger. What he might’ve done differently.”

Shasta smiled sadly. “I know how he feels. I doubt things would’ve been any different had he handled things any way but how he did. She was mentally shattered after Tobias did what he did. After that, it was a fight just to save her children from a life in hell.”

“And how are the children?” Valeria seemed unshakeable.

“With Matt as legal guardian now, they are well. Emotionally drained, but otherwise fine.” Shasta smiled sadly. “I fear for Matt, though. He has been the one who has had to be strong since the ’70.”

Valeria smiled knowingly. “Of course. After all, he is the oldest. Poor boy.”

Shasta put her arm around her aging mother. “Let’s go inside. We don’t have much time.”

“Alright, dear.” Valeria turned and went inside with her daughter. “Have you contacted Dmitri? What about Sasha?”

Shasta nodded. “Yes, mama. Both have been contacted. So have all who know Nattie.”

The two women grew quiet as they walked down the hall toward Michael and Valeria’s room. Michael emerged from the bedroom and Shasta rushed to hug him. “Pops.so good to see you.”

He put his arms around her. “Shasta, Dear. Wonderful to see you too.”

She hugged him tight. “Glad to see you too, Pops.”

He smiled sheepishly. “Come. We have much to do.”

They entered the bedroom, the three of them. Shasta would help them prepare for their journey. She had to. She was the only one of their children still close enough to help when it was needed. Dmitri, or Dee as he was better known by, lived in the Bahamas and had his own five-star restaurant. Dmitri’s was world renowned for world-class dishes that were well worth the price he asked. Dom, Dmitri’s boyfriend and business partner, had been welcomed into the family by Pops and mama almost immediately.

Sasha, the youngest of the siblings, lived wherever his research took him. At the moment, he was in the Patagonia. Tomorrow, he could be almost anywhere. Sometimes, Shasta believed that he had become the family’s Indiana Jones. In some ways, she felt that the boy had taken the Steven Spielberg movies too literal in his choice of what he wanted to do. Still, she was proud of him. he had done well so far.

***

Dee stood at the door of Natalia’s room. She was sleeping right now and he didn’t want to interrupt her. He hadn’t seen her in years, possibly since he was about five. Now, he wished he could have had more time with her. He dearly wanted to get to know his sister.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Dom stop next to him. Dom’s arm went around his shoulder. Dee brought his hand up to rest upon the hand of his lover.

Dom smiled sadly. “I am so sorry, Love.”

Dee bowed his head. “I really don’t know her well. We were never that close. I was like five when she left home.”

Dom rubbed Dee’s shoulder. “Still, it ain’t easy knowing someone is that ill. I know it wasn’t easy for me when I lost my brother. It doesn’t matter how close you are or how well you know them, you still lose a small piece of your heart. What matters is how many people you have to help you heal.”

Dee nodded. “True.” He looked over at his lover. “Did you have family to help you?”

Dom smiled crookedly and nodded. “Yes. I had Cruella De Ville, Dumbo, and Attila the Hun. Mother never approved of my lifestyle, my father was a preacher who thought I was going to hell, and my little brother was just a confused little kid who tried-and failed-desperately to please mom and dad. But the grief of losing Gianni brought us together. Yep, the Candozas of Tampa were the most righteous Cubanos in Florida.” The bitter sarcasm in Dom’s voice was hard to miss. “Afterward, I was kicked to the curb and disowned. Maybe it was all for the best. Tomas rebelled after I left and was shot to death in a gang war. Guess being a minister’s son was too much for him. what hurt was that they never called me to ask me to come home and be at his funeral. Guess they were too ashamed.”

Dee turned Dom so that he could look him in the eye. “Their loss and my gain.’ He lifted Dom’s chin so that he was looking his lover directly in the eye. “No need to be ashamed for something that makes you who you are. You are a wonderful man. Don’t ever forget that.”

Dom smiled. “How can I? You continually remind me. for that, I am thankful…and I love you.”

“I love you too, Dominico.”

“How’s she doing?” A familiar voice asked, causing Dom and Dee to turn and find Sasha approaching.

Dee smiled sadly. “She is sleeping, which is why I have not gone in to visit.”

“Perhaps you can go to the commissary and whip us up one of those world class meals you’re known for.” Sasha was smiling. “Just a suggestion.”

***

Shasta loaded her mother and father’s luggage into the back of their station wagon. The drive would be a short one, but the journey would be long. She only hoped that they could handle what waited at the other end. Sure, they knew that Nattie was in bad shape. But how would they handle it when they realized that she was dying?

The Morrow Family Saga, Series 4, Book 1: Once Around the Ride, Chapter 10

Belinda had taken her things. She had packed up and loaded her Corvette. She had left it all behind, never looking back. She had gone back to her world of one-night-stands and group sex.

Matt was glad to see her go. No one tried to control him. No one. And no one told him who he could or could not bring into his home.

Matt wanted to cry. Not because of Belinda’s leaving, but because he knew that his mother was dying. But he couldn’t cry. He had to remain strong.

He had his brothers and sisters  to think of. To be strong for. Only the oldest would know what was going on.  They were the most important part of his life, not some two-bit tramp who thought she had the right to demand his complete attention.

He couldn’t help smiling through the pain. It had been ironic, the whole incident about her demanding that it would be her or his family. There had really been no question. It had always been family. That meant that he would always step in and take care of the youngest in a time of need. He always had.

What had made her believe that she would ever get his way? She had been warned about him and how he saw life. Sal had told her. Tandy had told her. Hell. the whole band had told her.

Still, she had insisted that she could change him. But she hadn’t. instead, he had given her far less than she had been after. No house, no apartment, no millions…just a meager $10,000 trust account meant to build interest and a sports car. Not enough to even sneeze at.

Hell. She had probably already been to the bank to withdraw her trust to find that she had to allow it to mature over a couple of years. But he had warned her. He had told her that she would not be able to and she had not believed him.

Of course, the bank had contacted him to let him know that she’d tried and failed. It was funny, really. Some people never listened and she happened to be one of those. For her, the party never ended. As long as she could find sex, drugs, and a rock-n-roll star, she was happy. Maybe a bit too happy.

If it wasn’t for the pain in his heart, he would laugh. But the pain was more than he could bear at the moment. But pain let him know that he was still alive. Still, there were some days he wished that life would just leave him alone. And today was one of those days.

***

Belinda had closed her account at the bank. No need to remain in L.A. still, Matt’s lock on the trust he set up for her angered her. it was supposed to be her money. that had been the agreement. Yet what had he said to her when he told her that he had set it up?

“The account has a time lock. It has to remain in the bank for at least two years before you can begin to use it. That ensures that you will accrue interest enough to live for a good five years. Try to withdraw it right away and you will be refused.”

Damn him! Damn him to hell! He had tricked her, even though he had warned her. She frowned.

She had been such a fool. He would never change. Never. He was too set in his ways. His family was too important to him.

Maybe she should have taken things into her own hands and removed the threats. Maybe she should have just killed them all. There were too many maybes. She blinked back the tears.

No matter, it was better this way. She just needed to put distance between the two of them. Maybe the miles would deaden the pain. Maybe she just needed to find the next party. Or the next target.

Yes. That was it. She just needed to find another millionaire who was too stupid to realize what she was doing. She needed to be on the take. After all, that was what she was good at. Being a con.

***

Thirty-four years had led to this. Michael Morrow, now 90, knew that he had hurt his daughter in ’59 but had been unable to ask her forgiveness.  Even when he had reunited with her briefly in the 60’s, there was no asking for forgiveness, just a reunion as a family. And then, she was gone in the 70’s.

Now, before he could ask, his precious Nattie was dying. No parent should have to outlive their child. The child was supposed to outlive them. He fought back the tears.

Valeria hadn’t aged past the age of sixty. She was still so beautiful. He forced a smile even though he didn’t feel like it. She had been his greatest support over the past seventy years. Lord, how he loved her.

He had remained faithful throughout those years. Never once had he strayed. And they had been happy…happier than most. Even through the hardest years.

Yes, they had been the best years of his—no, their lives. They had been inseparable and fully immersed in love. Their children had been their lives and still were. As were their grandchildren.

He closed his eyes. Now, he was going to L.A. to say goodbye to his daughter. Yes, he had two of them, but Nattie had always held a special place in his heart even after she had run away.  And he had blamed himself for that. He had not taken the time to listen to her after Tobias had raped her.

He had tried to prevent that incident, of course, through his objections to her dating the detestable excuse for a man, but his objections had fallen on deaf ears. After that, it was too late to turn back. And he had handled the result poorly.

At the time, he hadn’t known how to handle it. He had been both angry at Tobias and hurting along with Nattie. He had lashed out blindly and spoken out without thinking. She had taken his words as an attack and fled. That had been in 1959.

The Morrow Family Saga, Series 4, Book 1: Once Around The Ride, Chapter 8

Natalia faded in and out of consciousness. Her body was weakened by the illness. Each day, she knew she was losing ground. She knew she was dying and she accepted that.

She opened her eyes, a tear forming at the thought of what she had done to her family. She had failed to be a mother to her children. she had failed to be a daughter to her parents. Or a sibling to her sister and brothers.

She had been irresponsible. Cruel. Thoughtless. Selfish.

Now it was too late. She was dying and could only ask their forgiveness. Not that she deserved it, but she wanted closure. She needed closure.

The sound of the door of her room opening brought her out of her thoughts. Looking in the direction of the sound, she spotted Shasta.

She smiled sadly up at her sister. “What day is it? Am I dreaming?”

Shasta shook her head sadly. “No, Nattie. You’re not dreaming. I have come to see you.” She sat down next to the bed and took Natalia’s right hand. “And it is Tuesday. 4 PM to be exact.”

Natalia felt a tear come to her eye. A lump began to form in her throat. “I am so ashamed of myself, Shazz. I have let everyone down.” She suddenly broke down into sobs.

Shasta patted her hand. “No, sis. You have not let everyone down. We let you down a long time ago. Mama and papa both let you down by not taking your story serious. But it is too late to change all that. All we can do is be here for you right now. “ Shasta swallowed the lump rising in her throat. “You have done well. You have been brave, even in your most vulnerable moment.”

Natalia smiled weakly. “You’re just saying that.” She saw the tears in Shasta’s eyes. “Please don’t cry, sissy.”

Shasta bent down and embraced Natalia. The tears were now flowing freely. Nattie was so young. She had always been so full of life, even after being raped. This seemed so unlike her. so unreal.

Why did she have to be the one who died first? Sure, Natalia had done some things wrong, but she did not deserve to die for them. Why now? Why right when she was starting to turn her life around and make good? Anyone could have made the same mistakes. Why was she not getting another chance?

After a long embrace, Shasta pulled away gently and looked Natalia in the eye. “I love you, Nattie. Hang in there for me. I want to be able to spend more time with you. I know Matty wants the same.” She kissed her sister on the forehead. “I’ll be back in a little while. I have to run a few errands to attend to.” She smiled reassuringly. “Business as usual, you know.”

Natalia found herself laughing weakly. “Yes, I know. Even when emergencies pop up, life never seems to stop.” She smiled up at Shasta. “Go. I can use the time you are away for a short nap. That is if Matty doesn’t come in right after you leave.”

***

Matt sat pouring his sorrow and pain into his guitar work. The music that was taking form was dark and brooding, but the best he had made so far. Tom couldn’t help but think that this new sound fit right in with the current movement in the industry. It was heavy. Harder than anything Matt had ever done.

He knew better than to interrupt. Matt’s eyes were closed in deep concentration. When he had his eyes closed, he was deep in the music and the rest of the world no longer existed. Even if he wanted to, he wouldn’t be able to get Matt’s attention until the music ended.

The band sat behind Tom listening in on the session, their mouths agape. They couldn’t believe what they were hearing. Where was this coming from and why had Matt kept it a secret? It was a breath of fresh air.

Sal Giovanni smiled. Whatever the secret, Matt had opened up at just the right time. he had known that Matt would bring in new ideas when he was ready. Seemed he was ready now.

He knew the boy was going through hell, but sometimes, that was when the best ideas hit. As long as his energy was poured into finding new sounds and creating new paths in the industry and not in taking drugs or alcohol, he would have a long, successful career. He closed his eyes and lost himself I the sweltering music pouring forth from Matt’s guitar. Burn on, man, burn on, he thought to himself as he continued to listen.

With the rise of bands like Def Leppard, Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, and Scorpions, Matt’s traditional classic rock was starting to fade in popularity. With this new thunderous offing, he would once again rebound. After all, the sixties and seventies were past and there was a movement of darker, harder, more metallic music based in the blues. There was even an emerging thrash metal scene. But there was no telling where Matt would go with his music.

Sal let the riffs take him away. He could feel the basslines wanting to be added. Matt’s music caused a natural reaction within his band, a reaction that allowed the rhythm to fill in naturally. And it was usually done in a single take. Easy.

This would be no different. One shot only. So easy, so smooth. He looked at his bandmates. All seemed to be feeling it as well. But who would he choose for vocals? Their last vocalist had thrown a tantrum and left the band.

Matt had naturally shrugged it off. Who needed a diva, male or female, when they could go and find a hungry wannabe to fill in for an album or two? Perhaps Matt would be able to secure a female vocalist this time? Or maybe a duo.

He looked over at Tandy. “You ready for this?”

Tandy grinned. “Oh hell yeah! This is amazing!”

Sal smiled. “I know. Been waiting for this for the last year. At least since Sabbath emerged. Now, Matt pulls out all stops and gives us thunder.”

Tandy chuckled. “I know, right?”

***

Savanna Morrison was hungry for stardom. She had cut her musical teeth on disco and R&B, but wanted something else. She had a jazz and classical training, but even those styles didn’t fit. She had fronted a couple of blues rock bands and found the style a bit closer to her liking. The only problem was that she had joined them near the end of their runs. She had pushed them closer to success only to watch them fall apart as the labels sought them out for signings.

Now without a band, she found herself drawn to Matt’s studio. She had heard that Matt’s band  Morrow was looking for a fresh new vocalist. Toro Malvaise had quit over something stupid and now they were without a vocalist. Perhaps she could win the position.

There were ten other vocalists waiting in line when she arrived. Three were more experienced than she was, two were more groupie than musician. She couldn’t help but smile. Most were only there to push their way to stardom through getting the gig. But not her. if it helped her, so be it. If it was her last gig, that was fine as well.

The point was that Matt rarely did his own vocals. He was the mastermind behind  the sound. His guitar work was legendary and drove the band. The sad thing was that she seemed to be one of the few waiting who realized that. Perhaps she could work that to her favor.

The Italian Connection (2007)

The Italian Connection

A Perry St. Laurent Adventure

I sat in Milan at a quaint little coffeehouse, that few have visited and even fewer had ever heard of, waiting for my contact. She was running late and I had time to fill, so I loitered there basking in the warm Italian sunlight. It was a pleasant day, not much of a rush to do anything in particular, and I was beginning to like the leisure life. Seemed to suit me well.

Up until that point, I had done all for the money. I had never really taken into consideration the other aspects, due to always having a time constraint, and now found myself reassessing why I was doing what I was doing. Indeed, I found myself wondering if it was truly the money I was after. Or was it something else? Or was there something else behind my doing it?

Suddenly, it hit me. The money didn’t matter. Sure, I was making more dollars than sense, but it wasn’t the money I liked. I liked the freedom. I liked the travel. I liked the experiences. I liked…well, I liked everything I did. The money was just an added bonus. It helped me go from point A to point B and live in the places I was while I was there.

But it was everything else that I did that kept me doing my job. I’d seen places I’d only dreamed of seeing when I was a kid. I’d learned things that only first-hand experience could teach. I made friends everywhere I’d gone and whom I kept in contact with ever since. I had found a life that I was suited to. No factory, no office, no other form of work could give the satisfaction I felt every time I turned in another piece to my agent. Of course, every article was for a magazine or newspaper, but it was satisfying to educate people with first-hand experiences.

My life was what I wrote about. Whether it be while among the people of some African tribe, or out in the middle of Siberia. I wrote from my own, unique perspective. I wrote about what I came to know, not what some idiot said was true. I knew. There was no doubt that I knew. I lived it. I didn’t have to make assumptions. I didn’t have to make excuses for some erroneous and bigoted remark. I wrote as if I were one of those whom I lived with.

While I sat musing, in satisfaction, my contact arrived. She’d been held up by another appointment, but it didn’t matter. I was no longer working against my time restraints; I was now working on my own time. I was through working for the money. I left a tip for the server, though I probably shouldn’t have, and then got up to leave. It had been a wonderful two-hour wait and I was now ready to face the world…

The Balladeers of Tullwood Castle (1992/1993)

The Balladeers of Tulwood Castle

The Arrival

Tulwood was grand, and one look would tell anyone that the estate had not been cared for since Sir Henri Tulwood died several years before. Now, somewhere, something heralded the return of a Tulwood to the hill where the castle lay sprawled across the fertile land.

The returning Tulwood was not as finicky as his ancestors and did not care if the legend of his new home was true. No, Thomas Henri Tulwood cared only about remodeling the family birthplace and giving it a better look.

Thomas was taller than most of his family, including his father, who stood six feet, ten inches tall. With a strong will and a powerful build, Thomas had what it took to return to Tulwood Castle to establish his last home.

Tulwood Castle lay in the southern part of Ireland near Cork. The gardens had turned to wildflowers, weeds, and grass, yet Thomas knew he could bring trained life to those unruly patches of rubble. Thomas stood at the top of the minaret-style tower that stood beside the keep overlooking the castle grounds and wondered if he should have brought his family with him to see this grand sight. Beyond, outside the castle walls, he could see the small village that he was to govern.

The sound of shuffling brought Thomas out of his thoughts. As he turned toward the stairwell, he noticed his friend standing before him.

“How do you like my ancestral home, Donegal?”

Donegal gazed out over the land. “Interesting, sir. The view is grand.”

Thomas suddenly realized that his friend was right.

Walking toward the stairwell, he reminded himself to place flowers on Henri’s grave.

The Great Hall

The grandeur of all life

Settled with bright smiles And gay jokes of the summers.

Upon the unsuspecting guests

And the minstrels’ music

Woos the lively young girls into dancing, As a gypsy is made welcome.

—Donegal

Donegal knew that Thomas would go through the main hall on his way to Henri’s grave. Somehow he had to warn Tranny of the possible dangers that existed in that room. Having gotten his friend this far, he could not risk losing this fight.

“Donegal, what d’ye think of that?”

Turning, Donegal saw Tranny looking him squarely in the eyes. Looking up, he saw that the dangers were no longer apparent.

“Fine, Tranny, just fine. Has Thomas passed this way?”

“Yeah.” Tranny looked puzzled. “He seemed in an awful hurry.”

“He was?”

Donegal was worried. Something was wrong. Thomas just was not very attentive. He must have missed something when he last spoke to Thomas. What could he have missed?

As Thomas stood by the grave of Henri, whose ancient castle he had come to call home, he vowed that he would search for the person who caused Sir Henri’s fall into ruin.

When he finally noticed the old oak tree that stood as a sentry and a shade over the grave, he saw a stranger sitting in a niche in the highest point of the tree.

“Dear fellow, come down, I pray thee, an’ tell me thy name. If you know who I be, tell me now what you do here.”

Even as the stranger came down from his high perch, Thomas started toward the large stone bench.

“Sir, turn to me that I may see your face. ’Tis rarely a visitor I get.”

“Dear fellow, if I may remind you, I am not a visitor here. I live here.”

“I do not mean to say that the castle is my home. Nay, but this tree is home for me.”

“And the walls?”

“The walls be but boundaries betwixt me and the village. I go out only for food.”

“So you’re a fugitive?”

“Nay, nay, dear friend. I am a poet of recluse. You see, my life is among those of the past.”

The Legend

Thomas was confronted by two mysteries. One, what had caused Henri’s death—and two, who was the poet? He could not figure out what the link was between the two, even though he knew there was one.

As suddenly as the hunch came, it disappeared as a creature slid down the hall just ahead of him. What could it have been?

Hurrying, Thomas turned down the hall down which the supposed creature had disappeared. He found nothing but a tome, opened to a page that had the name of the castle at the top. “What bedeviled thing is this?”

Suddenly he heard the poet’s voice behind him: “Methinks it is the legend of your home. Read it and beware. Someone wants your life—not I nor the one who opened this dusty tome, but the evil one who resides beyond your gates.”

“Who opened this tome? And what be his purpose? Does he not know who I be? What’s he like?”

“Oh, yes, he knows you. Why else would he steal this tome and bring to you the legend of this forsaken place?”

“Do you know his name?”

“Nay, m’lord. I know him only by sight. A beautiful lad he is.”

Thomas looked at the page before him. Reading it, he soon became engulfed in the story it had to tell. The message was plain:

As the legend said,

Poor old Henri Thomas Tulwood fell to his ruin with hundreds of guests at banquet by the poison from Ptolemy Stacks’ purse, but Henri’s family and servants escaped with nary a scratch, but some say that a poet did stay, when others fled, for

he buried ol’ Henri with his guests— mummers, minstrels, and banquet honorers. There he rests in honored presence and wanders the halls of the castle so grand, only to hear the comforting music of the minstrel’s lute.

Blood be spilt but once. It shall happen again. The plot went ever so good, but it will be changed to be the end of all the Stacks.

For the lust of power did Ptolemy Stack kill, and for his ways shall a bloody feud rise. Alas, alas, for Ptolemy’s crew did fall; Alas, alas, for sly ol’ Stack, his mistake be paid by the descendants. Sly ol’ Stack’s great-great-grandson shall be confronted by Henri’s own great-great-grandson. Be wary, oh, black-leg Stack, for thy great-great-grandson will fall, and thy father’s debt will be paid with the ruin of thy family so noble, and the destruction of thy family so proud.

Be wary, dear Durango, for thy son shall die, and a legacy shall fade to a nonexistent color.

Oh, Telleri, your ancestor’s mistake will be paid when your life is through. Then the governing rod of Tulwood returns to Tellerigan. Be kind to the poet who makes the oak tree his home, for he is the heir of a million treasures. He is the descendant of the man who buried the once-festive leader and guests.

Listen, and be not proud, for the end of the legend is nigh, yet unfinished.

Thomas looked up from the tome into the blue eyes of the poet. “Have you seen these weary phantoms?”

“Aye, many times.”

“Where to they hide?”

“That now I cannot tell—but I can recite a poem that I wrote after I heard them and saw them.”

“Will you, please?” “Certainly. It goes like this:

The music of a lute fills the halls

Of a long abandoned castle

That time has let fall, crumbling into ruin Along the eerie passageways appears a phantom of ages past. Casting shadows of make-believe Upon the walls of reality.

As the phantom floats down the hall,

The music gets louder,

And you’re lured into following,

Yet you know there are none more, but you are the only one.

Something holds you in its power

As the phantom drifts through the door just ahead, And when you open the door,

You find you have been lured into a room so grand,

To witness the strangest concert of ghostly balladeers.”

“Are you telling me that they are in the great hall?”

“Nay, they are anywhere. The great hall is the place where I first saw them. Now I can see them anywhere.”

Thomas returned to his reading. The line he finished held the clue as to where the sword of Tulwood Castle was hidden.

Lennox and Catina

Lady Tulwood stood in the market of Tellerigan, looking at the goods the merchants had to offer. All she had hoped for had come to pass. That included the birth of her twins twenty years ago, and now it included the reestablishment of Tulwood governorship to Tellerigan.

At the same instant in the open countryside near Tulwood Castle, Lennox and Catina, the Tulwood twins, rode their horses and enjoyed the warmth of the sun on the emerald isle they called home.

Lennox was slightly shorter than his father’s seven-feet-one, and of a slighter build. Catina, on the other hand, was more the size of her mother, who stood six feet, one inch. Both of the twins were better-looking than their mother, because they looked like their father and were also most generally in good humor.

Lennox was talkative and always active, but today he was having more fun than he ever had in London or Dublin, where his father had taken refuge for thirteen years.

Catina was quiet and shy when she was around people she did not know. She was as pretty as a day of spring that brought forth the blossoming flowers. She loved poetry and had always had a knack for writing beautiful stories of love, happiness, and honesty even if no one would read them. She also loved art and painted incredible pictures portraying love and harmony.

The twins were excellent riders, and both loved music, but as they rode, they thought nothing of their talents; yet as they rode close to the castle, a young man the same age as they ran toward the castle in fear. Upon entering the gates, the twins were met by Collin, the stable servant.

“Anyone come through the gate, Collin?” Lennox asked. “No, sir, not that I saw.”

“Thanks, Collins,” Catina’s sweet voice said. “Thanks anyway.”

“You’re welcome, m’lady. You too, lad.”

The Room in the Tower

Catina remembered that her grandfather had told a story of a room in the tower where no one went, and she wondered why it had never been opened. As she explored, she found a golden key lying on the last step in front of the door to that ancient chamber. She slipped the key into the lock and opened the door.

Looking inside, Catina saw the boy who had run for the castle crouched in the corner in a frightened posture.

“You have no need to be frightened of me,” she said. “I don’t bite. I just want to know what I may call you. I’m Catina.”

“Tellon.”

She saw that her smooth voice was bringing ease to the boy’s composure.

“Do you live in this room?” she asked.

“Yes. So do Rathe, Jan, and Braun.”

“Who might they be?”

“Orphans. I’m their overlord.”

“Come, I want…”

“I must wait for the others.”

Suddenly a hand appeared on the window ledge. Tellon crossed to the window and pulled each of the boys into the room.

He quickly turned to Catina and said, “This is Jan, Braun, and Rathe.” He turned to the boys. “This fair lass is Catina.”

Ghosts in the Hall

Duncan had been with Thomas ever since they were in Orleans. He could never have believed the stories of Thomas’s grandfather’s escape from Tulwood Castle. For some odd reason he knew that Henri Tulwood II had told the unglorified truth, but the only route of escape would be the castle gate…or would it be?

Duncan was brought out of his thoughts when Lennox put a hand on his shoulder.

“Duncan? You alright?”

“Yes, Lennox. I was just thinking.”

“About what?”

“Nothing much. Just how someone would be able to escape through the gates without being seen.”

“Never mind that. Come. Father is getting impatient. We mustn’t keep him waiting.”

Suddenly the two men stopped to a dead halt as a phantom floated in front of them and went through the door to their right.

The Golden Lute

As the weeks passed, Catina and Tellon became friends, and the orphans had been made part of the Tulwood family. Lennox had made all feel welcome, despite his mother’s objections. Thomas made sure that none had been left out of the summer festivities.

It was mid July when Tellon and Catina met in the meadow alone. Tellon was carrying an awkward-looking package.

Catina looked over at him. “What’s that?”

“This is a present for you. It was left to me by my great-greatgrandfather. He died in this castle the night as Ptolemy Stack poisoned Henri and the banquet guests. That included him.”

“Why give it to me?”

“I like you—and most of all, I want you to have it.”

“What could it be?”

“Open it and find out.”

Catina struggled with the package until the bow at the top came loose. Opening it, she gasped in surprise as she pulled a golden lute from the cloth wrapping.

“It’s beautiful! Thank you!”

“Now you can play music anytime you feel it’s right.”

The Music Starts

Thomas woke up sometime during the night to the eerie sound of bagpipes and lutes. He got up, went into the hall, and started toward Catina’s room. In the hall he met Duncan.

“You heard it too?”

“Yes. I thought I was the only one.”

“No, I heard it too. Where’s the poet?”

“He went to the village.”

“I’ve got to check on Catina. She might have been…”

“I doubt it. I just passed her room, and she was sound asleep.” “Good.”

As they walked down the hall toward the great hall, Tellon stopped in front of them.

“What is it, Tellon?”

“Don’t interfere. It’s the phantoms of this castle.”

“This dreadful music is their doing?”

“Aye, but don’t let them know what you think.”

“I’ll remember that. Thank you, Tellon. I’ll remember that.”

Late Summer, 1659

When Tellon had met Catina in the meadow, it was an exceptionally good day, yet Tellon could tell that a storm would soon come, as would the bloody feud between the Stacks and the Tulwoods.

That feeling came true in the late summer of 1659. It happened while Tellon and Catina were lying among the pimpernel, when he noticed the mounting clouds filling the sky and the closing of the pimpernel blossoms.

“Hurry! We must get back to the castle. It’s about to storm.” “How can you tell?”

“I’ll tell you when we get inside. Now hurry! It’s going to be bad!”

Catina and Tellon glanced back and saw Randlie Stack looking at them.

“Hurry, Catina,” he whispered. “We’re being watched by Randlie Stack.”

“No!”

“Yes, Catina. He’s the one who wants to kill your father.”

“No…!”

The Feud Begins

Randlie had been told to go and see if Thomas had arrived at the castle, but he did not expect to see a girl with Tellon. Who was she?

As Randlie turned to go, he felt a sharp pain and looked down to see what had caused it. Seeing blood, he looked up and saw the merciless face of the man whom he had tried to kill earlier.

“How did you survive the torture I put you through?”

“How do you think?”

“But…”

“That could have been Thomas or Lennox Tulwood’s blade. You ought to be glad it wasn’t.”

Randlie dropped to his knees and started to beg for his life, but when he looked at the stranger’s eyes, he saw no mercy there. Randlie’s dying thoughts were fogged with realization and regret. The stranger had made sure that Randlie would be where Telleri could find him.

Only then did it start to rain.

The Letter

Midnight heralded the coming of the three strangers, one of whom bore the news of the coming feud.

Thomas paced back and forth in the large study that he had chosen as a place to think out his problems. Suddenly a guard walked in.

“What is the problem?”

“Some strangers were caught entering the castle gates.”

“Bring them in.”

“But, sir…”

“No buts! Bring them in. Make it quick!”

“Yes, sir!”

The strangers were brought before Thomas so that he could see their faces. When McOrdany was brought forward, Thomas turned pale.

“What’s the matter wit ye, Tom? Have ye seen a ghost?”

“What the bloody hell are you doing here, McOrdany?”

“Came to help ye fight a battle. Thought you’d need some help. I’ve brought the whole clan.”

The Bloody Execution

Tempriane had been gone when his brother attacked Mcordany. According to a legend he had read, there was to be a split in the family, and he was determined to do just that.

Tempriane was peaceful, kind, and always abided by the law. He was different from the rest. He knew what he must do, and he should do it now.

Kory was stronger and more disciplined than Tempriane, yet they had never known what kind of a friendship would grow from their meeting. Kory was stronger than Randlie and could have killed him if need be, but at this time Tempriane had something to ask him.

“Do you think you could go and ask Sir Tulwood if I could form an alliance with him?”

“Yes, sir. By the way, your brother Sanders is to be hanged by the public today.”

“He deserved it, don’t you think?”

 The Ghost of Ptolemy Stack

A year had passed since Sanders was executed, and nothing had come out of the Stacks. When it all did, it was bloodier than anything ever seen by mankind. The eerie silence between the two warring clans was broken by a strange incident that would eventually destroy all traces of the existence of the Stacks.

This strange event was heralded by the return of the ghost of Ptolemy Stack. It was a bright, warm autumn morn when Thomas had seen the apparition, stooped and apparently writing something on the floor. As sudden as lightning it had moved and seen Thomas.

Then it spoke. “I am what’s left of Ptolemy Stack. I have been told by the nemesis that punishes my spirit, tearing me apart by day and by night, that my descendants will soon perish as I did long ago.”

“Why?”

“Do not disturb my spirit with your questions. Just hearken unto my words. One of my grandson’s illegitimate offspring is in your service. His name is Tempriane. He is shunned by the other Stacks, because he has Tulwood blood flowing in his veins. You’re his uncle. That’s why he sided with you in this. Tonight when they strike, most of their allies shall die first. This will be the only time anyone has seen or heard from me since my death one hundred years ago. Farewell, Thomas, and good luck to you. You have my blessing.”

After the phantom had left, Thomas puzzled over its last words. Why must he have the blessing of a dead man? Why?

The Silver Talisman

The night of the attack, several people including peasants were killed. All deaths totaled one hundred ninety-nine—Stackian mercenaries and only one Tulwood defender.

Duncan had turned in time to see the noble Donegal fall from his perch on the ramparts, screaming in pained anguish. At the time several of the attackers screamed as boiling oil was poured down the portals on top of them.

Donegal was carried from the wall to the great hall by a couple of young boys.

Tatus McOrdany was killed instantly when he was knocked from the wall by a rock, shot by a catapult. At the same time Lou McOrdany killed the operatives of the catapult below.

After the remaining Stackian fighters abandoned the conflict, Lou went below, where he found a body with a silver talisman around its neck. As he took it off the body, he glanced up and saw a felt sack full of golden coins.

Epilogue

In the months following the battle, short skirmishes were taken in stride as they came. Each battle came closer to the home ground of the Stack warriors.

After the battles ended, no Stack stood alive. The phantoms disappeared and were never seen again, because they were laid to rest when Telleri fell.

As the years passed, Catina married Tellon, and Lennox married into the royal family. When Catina played upon the strings of the golden lute, it was always beautiful, and when she played ballads that Tellon had taught her, she remembered her grandfather and smiled.

Thomas governed with an unfaltering hand and handed the governorship to Lennox in the time after an illness took its toll on him. Lennox passed it on to his son, and Tellerigan had the best governorship since Henri Tulwood governed hundreds of years before.