I actually began writing this book nearly 20 years ago, but then put it down and didn’t pick it up again until several years ago when I made the decision to finish various projects I had started (including The Mayonnaise Murders ) before starting anything new.
But unlike Mayonnaise, or my fantasy detective novel for children, Who Stole the Zmulobeast?, this is neither fantasy nor science fiction but a semi-autobiographical story that has gone through several transformations before I finally decided on how I wanted the story told. I plan on producing some follow-up novellas to go along with Fire and Wanda before the year is out so stay on the lookout for those and I’ll be sure to keep everyone updated.
Meanwhile, check out this phenomenal book cover created for me by my good friend Sydnee Turner of SydGrafix...
And here’s a taste…
What did it feel like, I wonder? And what was she thinking?
God, she was so beautiful. Wanda. Eyes like cat’s eyes; large, dark, and so erotically unsettling. So many times I hear echoes of the way she laughed, the gentle caress embroidered with a touch of the razor and scent of warm blood, her eyes lovingly peeling the skin from my heart. Too often I welcomed the inconvenience of pain simply to feel her heat raging inside me.
“What is it about me?”
“I don’t understand, Alton.”
“And I’m telling you I don’t understand. I told you before I think you’re sweet. You’re fine. What more…”
“I need to know. It’s OK. You can say it! But please, I need to know.”
“We didn’t know where you were. Honest to God, child, we would have told you. But no one knew where you were. You’ve been gone so long.”
“Not so long.”
Looking back on that day (can this really be yet another decade later?), remembering the way Berve’s face cocked to one side as she spoke, I realize I had no reason to remember or keep track of the passage of time, at least not accurately. Not even for Berve. I had many more reasons to shed my skin and walk away. To run away. Yet and still what I remember is the softness of Berve’s voice, even as her eyes cradled an accusation. I understood it, perhaps even felt it was justified, but I knew there was no answer I could offer that wouldn’t bring about uncomfortable consequences. I smiled.
Sitting there on the couch in Berve’s cramped South Side living room, Berve looked not that much older since the last time I had seen her when we were working in the burn unit at the University of Chicago Hospital. Back then her age was beginning to make unwelcome advances, but she never seemed to mind. Or if she did, she never let it show. Wearing a body that preferred the heavier side of the scale, Berve was a woman who had no sharp angles, inside or out. Everything Berve was soft and round and pleasant to touch – or to be touched by.
Wanda was another sensation altogether. Wanda was illusion and broken glass.
“So does anybody know, you know, why she…? I mean Jesus, Berve.”
Berve smiled, then patted the open space next to her on the couch, a worn-out piece of ragamuffin furniture covered in faded wine red upholstery. Before accepting the invitation a memory flashed in my head picturing the last time I’d seen that couch, seen Wanda seated on that couch, her legs folded under her like a little girl. She was looking up at me through those big cat eyes with a somber expression, one of the few times she was taking me seriously. I stood there waving my arms about, trying to get her to understand something. I was always trying to get Wanda to understand something.
Berve’s hand patted me on the knee as she sidled closer. Looking over at her, it struck me that her smile looked like it had been scribbled in place by someone who didn’t take the time to care whether or not the smile fit the face.
“Now you tell me, baby, can you think of any sane reason anybody could give for why a woman would set herself on fire in her own car and then speed that car into the side of a city bus? A beautiful woman with two young beautiful babies, a husband, and a good job? You tell me if you think there really is an answer for such a thing.”
I didn’t say anything for aimless, ticking seconds masquerading as hours. It was like one of those scenes in a movie where someone is focused so hard on a singular point that everything and everyone else fades out except for that single point of focus. And then, just that quick, the sights and sounds flow back in, like a video slowly easing its way out of pause.
“There’s an answer for everything, Berve. You just need to know where to look.”
“That’s youth talking, child. Sho ‘nuff youth talking.”
“Not after ten years it’s not.”
This time it was Berve’s turn to let the silence do its work.
Two weeks earlier I had called Wanda on a whim. I don’t know what it was that made me think of her when I did, only that she crossed my mind with a little more fanfare that day than the other ghosts stumbling around in my past. We hadn’t spoken in at least a couple years, but I still had her number and I hoped it was good. Plus I was working late at the paper on a story that I still couldn’t figure out how to put to bed, nobody else was around, and I needed a break.
The voice answering on the other end of the line sounded familiar, dosed heavy with that syrupy Memphis accent that still made my pulse speed up just enough to feel embarrassed. I covered up for it the only way I knew how.
“Hey girl,” I said. “What you got cookin’ good for me in that kitchen?”
There was a long pause on the other end of the line, and that’s when I thought maybe it had been too long. Knowing Wanda’s past like I did and who-knows-who-she-might-mistake-me-for, I figured I’d better clean up my act quick before I lost her.
“Hey! It’s me. Don’t hang up, all right? It’s me. Alton. Just tryin’ to be funny, that’s all. Sorry. But anyway, listen, I…”
“Who is this?”
“I said it’s…wait…Wanda…?”
“I said who is this?”
The voice was angry, but I could also hear the fear hiding beneath the surface. She sounded just like her mother…
“Wha…how you know my name? Look, whoever this is I’m hanging up this phone..”
“Corinne this is Alton. Remember me? Alton. Your mother’s friend from the hospital. I used to come by your house a lot after work. I even used to give you and your sister piggy back rides and rough house with you on Wanda’s bed? I know it’s been a really long time but please don’t hang up, OK? I’m sorry, it’s just that you sound so much like your mother, I mean just like her, it’s almost…”
“Momma’s dead, sir.”
A violent rush of air flooded my nostrils as my eyes snapped shut. I began rocking slowly back and forth. Suddenly I felt just how alone I was in that office so late at night.
“She died a year ago, Mr. Alton.”
“It’s just Alton. No Mister in front. I’m sorry, go ahead.”
There was another uncomfortable pause, and I was starting to think I shouldn’t have interrupted her.
“Do you remember me, Corinne? At all?”
“I think maybe a little. That’s why I didn’t hang up. Good thing you spoke up like you did.”
“Yeah, I guess maybe it was. So…I mean how…”
“Car accident. She died sudden though. Guess that’s good.”
“Maybe so. Yeah. Damn.”
“Yeah. So you knew my mother pretty good? You all worked together at the hospital?”
“That’s right. I was there for about a year.”
“Were you the one with those big wire-frame glasses?”
I laughed. The release of tension felt good.
“So now you really do remember. Yeah, big funny glasses. That would be me.”
I heard a small giggle, something like her mother but far more innocent.
“You were fun.”
“Well I guess that’s good to hear.”
“No, really. You were. I mean a lot of Momma’s boyfriends …were you …?”
I shook my head, even though I knew she couldn’t see me. She didn’t need to know that I would have just about killed to have heard her mother call me that just once.
“Naw. We were just good friends. I loved your mother very much, but we were just friends.”
“Thanks. I guess.”
“Not a lot of folks really loved my mother. I mean not for real. You know she was real pretty so a lotta guys always told her things, told her they loved her, but they never did. She thought I didn’t know ‘cause I’m supposed to be so young, but I kinda had to grow up quick.”
“How old are you now, Corinne?”
“Me? I’m 17. Be 18 next month.”
“Wow. Guess I really have been gone a long time. So how are you gettin’ along? Must be somebody there looking out for you or something, right? Your father, he’s still…?”
“My father’s dead. Momma’s husband left after she died. I don’t know where he is and that’s good. Me and Soraya got what we need.”
“My little sister. You don’t remember Soraya? Bad as she was?”
“Damn. I hate to admit it but I did almost forget. Soraya…”
Who knew how Corinne was paying the rent and taking care of whatever else needed taking care of, but I wasn’t going to ask. She’d already opened up to me way more than she probably should have, even though I’d identified myself as an ‘old friend’. You had to wonder how many times that line got used, especially to a girl as pretty as I knew Corinne had to be.
“Whatever. Anyway, I think Momma left something for you.”
“Left…Why would Wanda…your mother…why would she leave anything for me? I mean we were friends, but I haven’t even seen her in 10 years. We rarely talked more than once or twice a year since I’ve been gone.”
I could practically hear the shrugged shoulders in her voice, which had become encrusted with an icy hard edge. Now she was showing clear signs of being her mother’s child.
“Why would I know anything about that, Mr. Alton? Alton. Whatever your name is supposed to be. I just remember finding the package in her closet. Had your name on it. Looked to me like she was probably planning on mailing it but I guess she never got around to it. Who knows how long she had it up there. Anyway.”
“Look, Corinne, I’m not the enemy all right? I’m really not. And I’m sorry if I pushed some kind of button when I asked how you were getting along. I guess I figured it was an innocent enough question.”
“I ain’t said nothin’ about you soundin’ like you were any kinda enemy.”
“OK. Fine. Listen, I know you weren’t planning on talking to me this long anyway, and I need to be getting back to work on this story. So look, would you mind sending me that package in the mail? I’d really appreciate it, and besides I’m really curious what it is she could have wanted me to have.”
“Story? What story?”
“Huh? Oh, that’s right. Guess I didn’t tell you. Sorry. I’m a newspaper reporter. I’m down here in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.”
“You close to Miami?”
“Pretty close, yeah. Lot closer than you, that’s for sure. About 45 minutes and I’m pretty much there.”
“Always wanted to go to Florida. Momma did too.”
From a chilly fall, to an early spring, then dead into winter, then right back to spring all over again. Wanda spit this child out, no question. But my warm fascination was beginning to wear a little thin.
“Yeah, well maybe one of these days you can come down for a visit. You’re always welcome, and you’ll always have a place to stay. Now about that package, if you could just drop it in the mail…”
“She said you’re supposed to come and pick it up.”
“What? Corinne what the…? I thought you said you didn’t even find this package until after your mother passed. How is it you figure she told you I was supposed to fly all the way up to Chicago from down here in southern Florida to pick this thing up?”
“Because that’s what it says. There’s this note taped across the top saying she was supposed to hold onto it until you got here, but now she’s dead. Knowing Momma the way I do…did…she’d want me to do the same thing.”
“It’s what she wants, Alton. And if you were as good a friend of my mother’s as you say you were, then you know she always got what she wanted.”
I had to smile, because there was no doubt about it. When it came to something Wanda wanted, she’d use whatever means she had at her disposal to get it, and that woman had plenty of means if she didn’t have anything else.
“So how big is this package? Is it ticking?”
“You think I’d be keeping a ticking package up here in this house with me and my baby sister?”
“Your point. So how big?”
“Not so big.”
I rubbed my eyes and sighed. This was getting crazy.
“Not so big…? Not so big like a loaf of bread or not so big like a small car? What’s ‘not so big’, Corinne?”
That made her laugh. I relaxed a little, but was still feeling frustrated.
“Told you you were fun,” she said in a husky whisper, now sounding almost seductive.
“Yeah. Fun. So I guess there’s nothing I could say to convince you to mail me that package? Even though it’s probably not worth anything to anybody but me?”
“How do I know that? Might be money in there.”
“After all this time you’re just now thinking about that? Curiosity’s never gonna kill you, is it? So why don’t you open it up and find out if I’m a millionaire? I’ll wait.”
“Because Momma said it’s for you. Make her mad if I opened up somebody else’s things.”
“Oh, so you think she might be coming back to protest?”
“I think you ought to come get your package, Mr. Alton.”
Just like that, huh? I thought to myself. Just take a vacation from the job and fly halfway across the country to pick up a mystery package that’s ‘not so big’.
“My mother wasn’t the giving type, and I think you know that. If she left something for you, well, I’ll tell you this; she didn’t leave anything for anybody else except for me and my sister.”
I nodded slowly, looking out the window at how dark it had become. My little beat-up red Honda Prelude was one of only a handful of cars left in the parking lot. I hadn’t graduated to working out of the Big House yet, which is what we called the main office downtown, so I was still filing my stories from the suburban bureau in Lauderhill. The Lauderhill bureau was tucked away in a nondescript strip mall that looked pretty much like every other nondescript strip mall in Fort Lauderdale, which was pretty much home to the nondescript strip malls of the world. I sometimes wondered if Fort Lauderdale was where strip malls went to die.
“You still there, Alton?”
I cleared my throat.
“Yeah. Look, if I decide to come down then I’ll give you a call to make sure you’re around, OK? Fair enough?”
“I guess so. I’m not goin’ anywhere, so if you’re comin’ you might as well just come on ‘cause chances are I’m not gonna have anyplace else to be except right here. Like I know anything about anyplace else.”
“Yeah, well, OK. Just trying to be considerate is all. Look, I gotta go, all right? Once again I’m really sorry about your mother, even though I know this is coming so late. And I’m glad we had a chance to talk. And whatever I decide to do, I meant what I said about my door always being open to you down here. If you ever decide you want a break from Chi-town, wanna see some sun and waves? Feel free to come on down anytime. And bring Soraya along with you. I mean it.”
“You don’t even know me!”
“I knew your mother, and your mother knew me. She even said she liked me once. That ought to count for something, but do what you want. It’s just a friendly invitation, not a command. Anyway, gotta go. Take care, Corinne.”
“You comin. You know you are.”
She didn’t sound like she was necessarily happy about the prospect, but then she didn’t sound sad or angry either. More than anything she sounded tired.
“Gotta go, Corinne.”
Soon as I hung up, I dialed Berve, and that’s when I got the details. It turned out that not even Corinne knew the real story about how her mother had died, and I never bothered to ask Berve how she had managed to find out or how the info had been kept hidden from her own daughter. Then again, maybe Corinne wasn’t much interested in digging much deeper than what she’d been told. People could be funny like that sometimes; if they sensed that the truth about something was ugly, they’d opt for clinging to the lie like a drowning man to a life raft. Lies could be so much more comfortable.
By the time Berve and I had finished our conversation it was close to 10 p.m. and I wasn’t anywhere near close to being done with the story I’d been working on. Yeah, well. Wouldn’t be the first time I’d blown a deadline, and I didn’t much care for the story or the editor whose bright idea it had been to assign it to me. Some poor guy from South America, a big time soccer player, gets in an accident and winds up a quadriplegic. No more soccer for Jose. My editor, Fred, tells me he wants me to deliver a real weeper. Folks love that stuff, he says. It’s crap is what I told him. I mean, I’m sorry for the guy and all that. Terrible thing. But you can’t tell me with a straight face this is worth more than a few column inches. But no, Fred wants it for the lead on the Neighbors zone section front. He tells me to make it sing, but how can you turn a tone deaf mute into a Pavarotti?
“You comin’. You know you are.”
I woke up the next morning with a funny feeling. It was just before six, and I was staring wide-eyed at the ceiling in the semi-dark wearing nothing but a pair of boxers and my one little raggedy bed sheet tossed off to the side. Sweating. Just outside my bedroom was a fairly decent-sized screened-in porch that overlooked a nice little green space down below and, a little farther out, a canal. If you lived in Fort Lauderdale there was a better than even chance you were somewhere near a canal, just like there was a fairly good chance you were more familiar with flying roaches than you ever wanted to be. Not that there weren’t nice things about Fort Lauderdale too, but some things tend to stick out to a person.
Then again, maybe that’s just me.
Anyway, at night the apartment building lights kept the green space pretty well-lit, and the leftover brightness spilled over into my bedroom each and every night. Most nights it never bothered me, especially if I was tired. But for some reason, on this particular night, that glare had been riding my nerves like a drunk on top of a well-worn hooker. No matter how hard I tried to grab hold of just a few minutes of sleep, sleep kept running away. Didn’t help matters much that these home movies of Wanda kept playing repeat engagements inside my head.
Like that time we smuggled the cat into her cousin’s swanky lakefront apartment. Her cousin hated cats. I don’t even remember the name of the building, and it doesn’t really matter. What I’ll never forget is watching Wanda convincing this sweet little black and white cat that it was safe to step into this wide open brown suitcase that she had laying across her bed like a huge leather mouth. Just as soon as the cat got comfortable, Wanda snapped the suitcase shut then giggled and clapped her hands like a little kid at a circus. Then she promptly sat down on the edge of the bed, crossed her long skinny legs and lit herself a cigarette to celebrate before we embarked on the next leg of the adventure. Cheap thrills, I guess.
“This is gonna be so damned crazy, and that cat’s gonna kill her when she gets home, but that’s what the bitch gets for makin’ me do this thing,” she said.
“How is it she’s making you do this?” I asked.
Wanda’s eyes sparkled as she whistled a lazy stream of smoke, her full lips a perfectly puckered letter ‘O’. She shrugged her shoulders and laughed some more. Those times when she laughed like that, relaxed and silly, were the times she let me see the girl she had been before life stepped in and stole her away. I like to believe she enjoyed that she could laugh that way with me, but then I like to believe a lot of things when it comes to how it was with me and Wanda.
Anyway, it took about 20 minutes before the cat finally figured out he wasn’t any match for that suitcase and decided to quiet down and plot a horrible revenge for whoever was fool enough to open up that suitcase without wearing a suit of armor. Ten minutes later Wanda and I were headed down 63rd Street beneath the Jackson Park ‘el’ tracks in her beat up little red Chevy, which slipped and lurched its way through the snow on its way to our destination. The cat meowed weakly a few times whenever we hit a particularly distressing patch of ice, or a deeper-than-normal pothole, but for the most part he just stayed quiet.
By the time we got there, Wanda had the plan of attack all worked out. I would, of course, be carrying the luggage. She would, of course, charm the doorman. She was even wearing a pair of cheap sexy-but- not-really-suede ankle-high black boots with faux fur trim around the top. Something about the combination of those semi-high heels with her worn blue jeans and that long black winter parka was put together just right to get the desired attention. Wanda specialized in how to get men’s attention. Men who considered themselves immuned to women like Wanda and figured they could see her kind coming from a mile away were her specialty.
Just before we walked through the rather large glass entry doors, Wanda whispered to me out the side of her mouth, “You ready, sweet pea?”
She giggled, then motioned for me to pull open the door for her with my free hand. The other one was carrying cat-in-a-bag. Soon as she crossed through the doorway there was a noticeable difference in how she walked. Just a few moments earlier, right after she had stepped out of the car, Wanda’s strides carried her slender frame up the rather long walkway toward the apartment complex at her normal easy, gliding pace. Feminine, for sure, but relaxed. But once we were in that hallway and Wanda knew she had the doorman’s eye, her hips suddenly shifted into a whole other gear. She was clocking in. With one hand she smoothly and deliberately eased back the hood of her parka, letting the long, reddish brown curls of her hair tumble down around her small, somewhat feline oval face. Her smile warmed up slowly, in perfect time with the lighting of her eyes, making sure not to appear too anxious. Wanda’s secret was letting a man know she knew she had him – and convincing him to like it.
The girl was good.
“So how you doin’ this evening?” she asked, emphasizing the Southern in her drawl. “You all right?”
The doorman, standing approximately five yards beyond the door at his post, grinned and nodded his head in response. He reached his hands behind his back and clasped them together. Even I could see at this early stage that this was going to be a lot easier than what we thought.
“Just fine, Miss. Help you?”
“Um-hmmm. I’m Wanda? Carly’s cousin? She probably told you I was comin’, right?”
The doorman, short and squat, looked like he might have played high school ball sometime way back when. Definitely defense, and he was probably good. The belly was more visible than I expect he would have liked beneath the bland gray uniform, but it was still easy to see the power remaining in the chest and shoulders. His smile was trained to remain in place no matter what, but I noticed a slight strain appearing around the edges, letting me know he’d heard this line one too many times. Wanda better strike quick if she was gonna pull this off.
Without missing a beat, she cocked her head at a slight angle, let her shoulder slump just a bit, then put on a mask of mild disappointment. But her eyes never strayed. From the minute she walked through the doors until now they held onto his gaze like a vice, never allowing him to notice anything else.
“You mean Carly didn’t…? Damn that girl. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to curse, but if that ain’t just like Carly, you know? Always leaving me to clean up her mess, then forgetting to leave me the mop.”
That got a chuckle out of him. Progress.
“What’s your name?” she asked. “That is, if you don’t mind my asking.”
“Lonnie,” he said.
“Lonnie? Really? My crazy little baby brother’s name is Lonnie. Hope you ain’t like him. Anyway, Lonnie, here’s the thing, OK? My dumb cousin is stuck in New York at some conference for I think it’s another week. You know she left this morning, right?”
“And being the dumb cousin that she is? She forgot her medicine. So now she calls and tells me to come down here and get it from her apartment so I can overnight it to her tomorrow. She had enough in her purse to keep her straight for a few days, but that’s about it. Anyway…”
“What’s in the suitcase?” he asked.
“Huh? Oh, that thing my brother’s carrying? That’s Carly’s bag is what that is. Still even got some of her stuff in it. Been over at my place for I don’t know how long. I figured since I was coming over here I might as well bring it back and drop it off. Get it outta my house. Lord knows I have enough junk of my own between me and my two girls, OK? I mean I have enough.”
Wanda didn’t have a brother named Lonnie or by any other name, and I’m willing to bet money her cousin wasn’t on any kind of medication. Only reason we were here was to play a practical joke because Wanda felt like having some fun.
Lonnie’s eyes twinkled as he started to chuckle.
“Carly give you guys a key?”
Wanda nodded, letting her eyes sparkle in response.
“Oh yeah. I’ve been had that girl’s key for the longest. And she’s got one of mine too, which I guess is kind of a good thing, right? I mean, in a city like this, and ain’t neither one of us got no man.”
“Now that can’t be right,” he said, trying to act like he knew how to flirt. “Pretty lady like yourself?”
“Nope. Big old city like this, can you imagine? And can’t neither one of us find just one good man. Ain’t that the saddest story you ever…”
The bag thumped. Not real loud, but just loud enough to get some attention. Lucky for us, Lonnie wasn’t sure at first where the noise had come from. Since neither one of us let on that we’d heard a thing, he tried to act like he hadn’t heard anything either. So with the rest of that unfinished sentence hanging in the air between us, we stood there in the sudden silence for about five or ten rapid heartbeats before I piped up and suggested that maybe it was about time we went on up to cousin Carly’s because remember? I had this real important band rehearsal that evening and if I was too late that wouldn’t look good since I’d just joined this band and…
“…Oh yeah…” she said, looking at me with a mixture of confusion and admiration.
“I’d forgotten all about that, baby bruh. Sorry. Yeah…guess we’d better be getting on then.”
Once the elevator doors closed and we’d gone up about three floors, Wanda broke out laughing so hard I had to wonder how she’d managed to keep it trapped inside for so long without rupturing something.
“All this time and I never knew you could lie like that!” she said. “You and your little shy boy act, and all this time you damned near good as me. I’m gonna have to keep my eyes on you, ain’t I?”
She winked. I grinned.
“I wish you would,” I said.