Free Fiction

Author of Murder

by Jean Rabe

The body lay on its side, twisted into an odd position.

“The carpet pattern. It has circles in it,” Ethel Dell said.

I watched the Ethel avatar—the computer game character a student on the other side of campus portrayed—study the body and the big rug underneath it. Today Ethel wore a cornflower blue short-sleeve dress that hit her about mid-calf. Her auburn hair was all flouncy curls that dangled just above her shoulders, appearing like the woman on the cover of Juice of the Pomegranate, published in 1938…one of the real Ethel Dell’s romance novels.

Ethel paced a wide circle around the corpse and then stretched out a high-heeled foot and tapped one of the circles. The nap was shag, but it didn’t move; I would have to fix that, make it responsive to a game player’s character.

“The circles. See the circles? The colors of them? Maybe the guy was playing some sordid game of Twister, fell and broke his neck. IDK.” I Don’t Know.

The body wore a black formal dinner jacket at least a century out of style, over a starched white shirt embellished with diamond cufflinks. No wedding ring, but on the index finger of the right hand there was a chunky silver and gold band set with a large yellow stone…maybe citrine, maybe topaz. I would adjust that detail, make it a ruby—better contrast. A good game should have impressive graphics.

“The circles,” Ethel continued. “IDK, Sherlock. IDK. Could be an accident—”

I made a tsk-tsking sound. “Gotta be more to it than that,” I said. “Gotta be murder. You know that, Eedee.” Ethel Dell was an awful-sounding moniker for the character she’d selected to play. I’ve called her Eedee since our first foray into my game five weeks past. “Your avatar wouldn’t be standing in this house if it wasn’t murder. I didn’t hire you to play-test a ‘solve the mishap’ game.”

Ethel got down on her hands and knees and put her face level with the victim’s. “Yeah. Okay,” she said. “Murder for sure. His eyes are wide open and I see little red spots in them. I ‘spect the red spots are a clue. Right?”

“Petechial hemorrhage,” I said.

“Huh?”

“P-e-t-e-c-h-i-a-l. Look it up. You’re the med student. The red spots.”

“BRB,” she said. Be Right Back.

I saw her go all AFK—Away From the Keyboard—on me and Ethel Dell shimmered out of existence.

Pissed me off when she did that, go AFK, to make a snack or answer the phone, or in this case to no doubt look in one of her textbooks for the term I’d just supplied. She could’ve just Googled it, but I knew she didn’t like to flop back and forth between screens.

IRL—In Real Life—Ethel was in her second year of a bachelor’s degree RN program. She’d answered my “play-tester wanted” post I’d put in the Student Union. She wasn’t the lone gamer to apply, but she was the prettiest, definitely the brightest, and me being a student too, I only had the funds to employ one play-tester at any given time. She’d claimed to be an avid geek, that she had a top-of-the-line Alienware PC in her dorm room with a nineteen-inch monitor and regularly delved into Stardew Valley, The Bug Butcher, and Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak…and that she didn’t care much for first-person shooters and wanted to get into mystery role-playing setups.

Ethel shimmered back into view, right in the position she’d left from, though in a different dress—white, with a knee-length pencil skirt, a big green bow at the collar. Her hair was darker. A quick Google on my part: she was now the cover girl for The Way of an Eagle, Ethel Dell’s first novel, rejected by eight publishers before it came out in 1912, sold gangbusters, and boasted thirty printings in the next three years.

“WB,” I said. Welcome Back.

Why the woman had picked Ethel Dell as her avatar dumbfounded me. Maybe it was because the real Ethel wrote forty novels and therefore it gave her forty choices of cover avatars to use in the game. There were other literary ladies on the menu she could have taken: Eleanor Hallowell Abbott, Louisa May Alcott, Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Browning, Agatha Christie, Mary Shelley…and on and on…and Ethel M. Dell. And that’s not counting the male authors she could have selected from.

“Petechial hemorrhage. Found it in my medical dictionary,” she announced. “IRL a common cause of petechiae is from physical trauma…a long bout of holding your breath, vomiting, crying, violently coughing…that shows up in the eyes. Little red spots. Can be a sign of thrombocytopenia, a clotting deficiency, or a side effect to medications. But can also result from strangulation or suffocation, which has to be the case here since this is, as you pointed out, a ‘solve the murder’ game. By the way, have you come up with a better name than Author of Murder?”

I’ll admit it wasn’t the greatest of computer game titles, and I would indeed choose something better before I marketed it. Author of Murder was just a placeholder so to speak, and it incorporated the two basic elements of the game…your character was a dead author trying to solve the murder of another dead author. That let me use snippets from authors’ books—public domain titles—scattered here and there on the screenshots without fear of lawsuits.

Author of Murder is just a working title,” I said.

“Work on something better.”

“So, Eedee, what was it…strangulation or suffocation?”

Ethel stood, her blue eyes glimmering. “Did you just slur your words, Sherlock?”

My name is Sherman, but she calls me Sherlock.

“Are you drinking, Sher?”

“I’m not shlurring my words, Eedee. But, yes, I’m drinking.”

“I’ve got a pot of Darjeeling next to my keyboard. I love me some black tea with a spoon of honey. You drink too much, you know that Sherlock.”

“I have a rum and cola now and then.”

“You are slurring your words.” Ethel paced around the corpse again. “Good thing it’s Friday night, Sherlock. Hangovers and morning classes don’t mix.”

“Don’t judge, just solve it, Eedee.” I sat back in my chair and added another shot of rum to my glass, kept my eyes on the monitor so I could see where her character was going.

“Suffocated or strangled…either way it’s murder,” she pronounced. “I’m gonna learn more about the dead guy before I delve into the precise cause of death.”

The nursing student was a smart cookie, maybe more clever than the average role-playing computer geek. I’d made this particular scenario a little more difficult, just for her. Might have to scale it back a bit when I approach the big game companies, make it more playable to the masses. There was no doubt I’d sell this and make more than enough money to pay for college…if I wanted to stay in school and finish up my game art and design degree. But if I made boatloads, I’d move to the Bahamas, live off royalties, and drink lots of rum. Forget school.

“I’m thinking the circles on the carpet are a clue.” She couldn’t get the friggin’ rug off her brain…which meant she was on the right track. “Circles. Dots. Connect the dots. What do the circles mean?” One more sweep around the corpse and then she focused on the room itself.

The parlor was lit by kerosene lamps that flickered as if a faint wind stirred through the open window. I was a pro at digital imaging and texture mapping, so moving graphics were easy to include. Logs glowed in the fireplace. Ethel stopped in front of the hearth and stared at the picture that hung above it…a lone brave on the bank of a river.

A pair of long leather stockings hung from the mantle; she looked at those too. Then her gaze dropped to the embers. Did she notice the charred fabric? The buckle? I’d made those details very small.

“BRB,” she said.

Once again, Ethel went AFK and disappeared from the screen. I took another long pull from my rum and cola. It needed ice. A quick trip into the kitchen, where I took time to slice off a chunk of cheddar cheese, and I was back in my chair.

Ethel had reappeared and moved to the bookcase.

“I know who the victim is without turning the body over,” she announced.

“Do tell, Eedee. Do tell.”

“James Fenimore Cooper.”

Well done, I almost said. Instead, I growled from deep in my throat and took another long pull from my drink. “And how did you come to that conclusion so fast…without turning the body over?”

“Cooper wrote a series of novels called The Leatherstocking Tales, and you have leather stockings hanging by the fireplace. The painting…that’s of the Hudson River because on the opposite side you have the ruins of seven stone buildings, a recognizable national landmark dating to the 1700s. The brave is a Mohican, a name derived from the word Muheconneok, which translates as ‘from the waters that are never still,’ the tribe’s name for the Hudson. So the painting is a nod to The Last of the Mohicans, one of Cooper’s most famous novels.”

She gestured to the house’s entry, an open frame. I figured Eedee would assume I hadn’t laid in the door detail yet.

“Cooper was expelled from Yale because he blew up a fellow student’s door…which you hint to there. Further, there’s a ship in a bottle on that shelf.” She pointed a long finger at it. “James Fenimore Cooper was obsessed with writing seafaring tales and naval history books. To top it off, the house number is 1851, the year Cooper died.”

“Bravo,” I conceded. “So you’ve got the victim. But that’s all you’ve got. No motive, no killer.”

“BRB,” she said.

“Argh.” I took another drink, refilled the glass with a double-shot of rum and more cola, and waited. Two nights ago me and Eedee went out for pizza, to talk about the parameters of my game, scripting, 2D animation, 3D modeling, and then we came back to my apartment…an easy walk up a flight of stairs ‘cause I live about the pizza place. She gave me some pointers on the life drawing in my game. Admittedly as a nursing student she had a better grasp of anatomy and said I was making the characters’ hands and feet too stunted. She was right; I fixed it. We shared a few drinks…well, I had a few drinks and then she headed back to her dorm. “Classes early,” she’d said. I figure I’ll invite her for pizza again in a few days, pick that marvelous brain a little more.

“Sorry,” Ethel said when she popped back on the screen. “Had a phone call. A telemarketer. I do not have the funds for a timeshare. Not yet anyway. Why do they always call me?”

Ah, once more I thought about the Bahamas. Rum on the beach.

She spent the next hour going through every room of the house, clicking on the novels on the shelf, examining a curio cabinet, going AFK every once in a while.

“I watched a Law & Order marathon a week ago,” said. “Love Lennie Brisco, ya know.”

Whoever the hell Lenny Brisco was. “Yeah, gotta lovesh Lennie,” I said.

“You’re slurring your words.”

“Whatever.”

“Really slurring.”

“Whaaaaaaaaaaaatever.” I drained the glass. “Just figure this one out, Eedee. I was hoping to get in three scenarios tonight.”

“WWBD,” she stated. Sometime while Ethel had been moving through the house she’d changed clothes again—this time her character wore a straw hat, a blue-green two-tiered skirt, a matching blouse with butterfly sleeves, and a sash. A Google: the image of the woman on The Desire of His Life, a 1920 Ethel Dell novel. “WWBD,” she repeated.

“Huh?”

“When I’m playing one of these games I always ask myself WWBD. What Would Brisco Do? Lennie would follow the money. Lennie always followed the money.”

“C’mon, you gots this,” I encouraged her. “I gots a scenario with Mark Twain all queued upsh. Screw Lennie Brishco.” Even I could tell I was slurring my words. “Who shtrangled James Fenimore Shcooper? Eh, Eedee?”

“Hah! He was strangled. Not suffocated. Strangled! Thanks for that tidbit.” She paced around the corpse one more time. “So I have the method…strangulation. I have the means…the belt from the trousers.” She gestured to the fireplace. The buckle from the belt glimmered amid the embers. She had noticed! “The body’s all twisted because you have a twisted imagination, Sherlock.”

Ethel padded toward the curio cabinet and pointed. “See that Napoleon figurine? It’s knocked over. Napoleon has fallen. See the circles on the carpet? They symbolize balls. Balzac. The killer is Honore de Balzac, a playwright and novelist humorously mentioned in The Music Man. He had a collection of short stories that were set in the years after the fall of Napoleon. Balzac was a noted admirer of James Fenimore Cooper.”

“Sssho whats the motive?”

“BRB,” she said.

I leaned back in the chair and stared at the empty room on my computer screen, barely registered the footfalls in the stairwell or my door being jimmied open. I didn’t have the strength to swivel the chair and see the intruder.

I didn’t need to. I knew it was Eedee. She must have been playing the game on her iPad while she hoofed it over here.

“Whatsss the motive?” I repeated.

“For Balzac, I figure jealousy. But the best motive is always money,” she said, leaning over my shoulder and speaking softly into my ear. “It’s a great game you’ve created, Sherlock. I’ll sell it and pay for nursing school and then some. Maybe get a car. Maybe get one of those timeshares the telemarketers keep calling about.”

How? my lips formed. The means?

“When I was here the other night after pizza.” She pointed to the rum. “Nursing student, remember. Excellent student. Did you know that well more than a thousand people died accidentally in the past decade from taking too much acetaminophen? Combine it with alcohol. Combine a lot of it with alcohol, and you get liver failure and death. I’d ground up a whole pack of pills and dumped the powder in your rum when you weren’t looking. I figured you’d drink yourself silly this weekend and go AFK forever.”

I tried to reach for my cell phone, but she pushed it away. She was wearing gloves.

“Even if somebody finds your body tonight—” She stretched across me and plugged a jump drive into my computer and started downloading. “—by the time you get stretched out on the autopsy table all that acetaminophen will be gone. Lots of empty rum bottles in your kitchen, a near-empty bottle of Tylenol on the sink. No foul play. An accident. One more statistic for WebMD.”

I couldn’t move, could barely breathe. I watched her siphon every bit of data of my murder mystery game, delete the appropriate files from my hard drive. I knew the cops wouldn’t check the computer, not the wiped stuff. They’d see the rum. I’d paid her cash, no money trail. Nothing concrete to connect us. One night out together for pizza, but I went out for pizza often with a lot of different girls.

She’d get away with my murder.

“You know, Sherlock, I hadn’t liked your game title at first, Author of Murder. But I think it’s appropriate. I’ll keep it.” She paused and added: “NNTR, baby.” No need to reply.

          “Thou knotty-pated execrable wretch!”

          I watched Bill grab the purse-snatcher by the wrist, his iron grip snapping bones and causing the thief to howl in pain and drop his foul-gotten gains.

          “Thou warped elf-skinned puttock!” Bill continued, as he twisted the snatcher’s limb backward and—I’m guessing accidentally—cracked the snatcher’s ulna. The thief howled louder and Bill had to shout to be heard above the wail. “Thou churlish fool-born malt-worm! Thou—”

          “Enough with the Elizabethan curses, Bill,” I nudged his foot with mine. “He gets the message. He shouldn’t’ve pinched the dame’s pocketbook. I bet if you break his other arm, he’ll never pinch anything again.” Somewhat to my surprise, Bill did just that, and the snatcher mercifully collapsed into unconsciousness.

          The throng that had gathered on this warm summer day . . . the young lady whose purse had just been rescued, a scattering of tourists snapping pictures, businessmen on their lunch break, a homeless gent stinking to that proverbial high-heaven, and a trio of daycare workers herding a flock of toddlers . . . broke into applause.

          “Let’s get out of here, Bill, before the cops show up.”

          He returned the purse with a flourish, bowing and kissing the woman’s hand.

          She grinned coyly.

          “The robbed that smiles steals something from the thief,” he said.

She cocked her head, not understanding.

“Othello,” Bill supplied. “Act I, scene III. The robbed that—”

“C’mon, Bill, we gotta go.”

          Bill reluctantly followed me, as did One-from-Seven and an ugly duck. We cut down a bike trail into a more heavily-wooded section thick with lofty pin oaks, where everything seemed oddly quiet. I loved this part of the park, not far from Belevedere Castle. I couldn’t smell Manhattan’s pollution here, too far from the cars belching exhaust, but I could detect a trace of manure, a by-product of the popular carriage rides. And when the wind shifted, like it was doing now, there were scents supplied by the hot dog carts and churro vendors, and let’s not forget the hint of burning salt from the pretzel hawkers.

Bill was spouting again. Distracted, I’d missed the first bit. “. . . villains on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treacherous by spherical predominance; drunkards, liars—”

“What?” I stared up into his unblinking eyes.

“From King Lear,” he said.

“Great. Remind me never to animate you again. Ever.” So maybe this year I didn’t choose wisely. Maybe this year my moniker fit. This year I picked Bill—William Shakespeare. Coaxed him down from his stone pedestal southeast of Sheep’s Meadow. Heard he’d been up there since 1864, and paid for by money raised from a benefit performance of his play Julius Caesar. He’d been sculpted by John Quincy Adams Ward. There were three other pieces by Ward in Central Park. I should’ve picked one of them, but I’d thought Bill was dressed interestingly enough to share my company, though a little out-of-date. Should’ve realized his speech would be out-of-date, too.  At least he spoke some form of English.

With us was One-from-Seven. I don’t know what else to call him, as he won’t tell me his name . . . hasn’t said a single word so far. I suppose I could call him Soldier Boy or Hey You, but I like the sound of One-from-Seven better. I plucked him out of the 107th Infantry memorial. There were seven fellows there, representing what was originally called the Seventh Regiment of New York during World War I. I’d animated the one in the center a couple of years past, and he’d told me their unit saw heavy action in France, nearly six hundred of them dying before November 1918 came to an end. The memorial was unveiled in 1927, not far from the perimeter wall of the park by Fifth Avenue and 67th. The soldier all the way on the right, One-from-Seven, carried two Mills bombs and had been supporting the wounded guy next to him. I picked One-from-Seven because I thought the bombs might come in handy later today.

Lastly was the duck.

I’d animated the statue of Hans Christian Anderson, the famous fairy-tale author. The duck . . . representing The Ugly Duckling, one of his most notable pieces, and thereby a part of the bronze display  . . . was an impulse to bring to life. They were cast at the Modern Art Foundry in Queens, so you’d think Hans would have spoken English, right? No, Danish. We couldn’t communicate; I couldn’t get across what we all needed to accomplish this day, and so he’d wondered off, probably looking for tourists from Denmark to read to. The duck stayed with me.

Bill was babbling again.

“What? I missed that.”

“I sayeth: the world is grown so bad, that wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch.”

Both of my eyebrows rose.

“Act I, scene III, Richard III.”

“Well, I guess you got the gist of it. Things are bad in the park, which is why I used my magic to give you guys flesh so you could help me clean it up.” I watched a crow leap from a branch overhead and saw One-from-Seven shrink for cover. “Gangs and drugs are the worst of it, and that’s usually at night. But overall, things are not near as bad as they used to be. I mean, a handful of years ago I would spend an entire morning catching muggers and kids toting cans of spray paint. But today . . . until that snatcher you nabbed, Bill, we’ve spent all our so-to-speak waking hours picking up trash in the North Meadow and the Great Hill and waving to the joggers. The park’s a great place, safe, really, given the size of it and the number of people who come here everyday.”

“Sir Hatter—”

“And after the sun goes down, let me tell you, the scores of hookers I used to . . .” I saw the look of incredulity on his face. “Hookers . . . streetwalkers, prostitutes, hos . . . whores, you know . . .” I did a little bump and grind.

“Ah.” Bill understood. “Fulsome wenches, callets.”

“There were plenty of callets. I guess for the most part they’re plying their trade elsewhere.”

“Sir Hatter—”

“Mad, please,” I said. “I’m not much for last names, Bill.”

          “Sir Mad—”

Another bird took flight, this a fat jay, and One-from-Seven sought cover beneath a low bald cypress branch.

“Prithee, let us endeavor to stop another micher, Sir Mad.”

“Yeah, let’s be about it.” Bill fell in step at my shoulder, then marched One-from-Seven. The ugly duck waddled quickly to catch up.

Our meandering course took us across the Great Lawn and past the Delacorte Theater, where I directed Bill’s attention to the sculpture of Romeo and Juliet, locked forever in a bronze embrace.

“It is the east,” Bill said.

“And Juliet is the sun,” I finished. “Act II if memory serves.” I’d seen the play performed in the park a decade past, and sensed it played in years after that. I was connected to this park.

We hadn’t traveled more than a dozen yards beyond that when Bill waylaid a pickpocket and returned the wallet to its grateful owner.

“Thou ruttish onion-eyed pigeon-egg,” Bill called the thief before literally ripping his arm out of the socket. We quickly moved along before he could do something to the teen’s remaining body parts.

In the shadow of the Obelisk we helped an elderly woman regain her errant Maltese. She stared wide-eyed at us, pointing at my colorful garb and then Bill’s out-of-date duds, her gaze dropping to the Mills bombs in One-from-Seven’s hands, her mouth subsequently opening, but fortunately nothing other than a barely audible “Thank you,” coming out. It was the first time today—I didn’t count the after-dawn jogger ogling us over by the Jacqueline Kennedy Onasis Reservoir—that someone thought us dressed strangely. Through the years I’ve learned that most people don’t give me and whoever I pick as my companions a second glance. This is New York, after all.

Next we chased a pair of persistent beggars away from a priggish-looking woman feeding a gaggle of pigeons.

“Thou adulterate motley-minded scurvy knaves!” Bill shouted after the pair, nearly grabbing the slower of the two by the arm.

One-from-Seven kept his distance, his terrified gaze eyes locked onto the pigeons cooing prettily and strutting in front of the park bench. I understood the soldier’s fear of fowl, but I didn’t share it. My hat is tall, the brim broad, and so when I am bronze no poop plops on my shoulders or onto the lips of my overly wide grin. Lacking a helmet, One-from-Seven does not have such protection.

Just north of The Ramble, we came across a drunk trying to make off with someone’s 10-speed.

“Thou loutish dizzy-eyed haggard,” Bill called him.

The drunk rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet, fingers playing with the lock he’d managed to work free from the rear tire.

“Thou unmuzzled shard-borne bear-whelp,” Bill pronounced. “Thou accursed earth-vexing clotpole.”

The drunk belched loudly and glared defiant.

The duck quacked menacingly.

Bill broke both the man’s arms.

I was beginning to see a pattern in how Bill dealt with ne’er do wells, and so I moseyed us along. It wouldn’t do for us to get arrested. We could only spend twenty-four hours in skin, and we’d turn back into our bronze selves a little after midnight. Whatever would the cops do with Central Park sculptures in lock-up?

I took my troops past the Boat House, and Bill, One-from-Seven, and me stopped to pick up fast food wrappers and Styrofoam cups while the duck enjoyed itself in the lake. The sun was angling lower, and it sent motes of molten yellow dancing across the water. It looked like a pirate had cast out a sack of doubloons, all of them floating.

The park was the best part of this massive city, as far as I was concerned. A half-dozen decades past, I’d spent my twenty-four tooling around the streets of Manhattan, nothing more than a lookee-loo taking in all the noise, color, and constant rush-rush-rush of people essentially going nowhere. Through the years the city has only gotten louder. But the park . . . ah, Central Park has remained a constant. It is sweet-smelling grass and a hint of simpler things and times. It is dogs and children, picnics with strawberry wine, lovers kissing, old men playing chess, and friends sharing conversation. It is the polished, red shiny bit of skin on the Big Apple, a blessed respite from the cacophony that surrounds it. It is my home, and I have no plans to leave it ever again. So I’ve vowed to help keep it clean . . . at least for a twenty-four hour stretch, and hopefully my deeds will have some impact well beyond these hours.

I figure if any purse snatchers read the newspaper tomorrow or listened to the evening news they’ll think twice about trying to get a five-finger discount in my park.

Yeah, my park.

Near the Conservatory Pond—where the ugly duck decided to take another dip—I took Bill and One-from-Seven to see my crib, the spot where I’m forced to spend the other three hundred and sixty-four days.

“Yon statues are so—”

“Shiny? Yeah, they are that. Me, too, when I’m hanging with them.” The Alice in Wonderland statue, not far from East 74th in this part of the park, is a favorite with the children. There’s Alice on a giant mushroom, fingers stretched out toward the pocket watch the White Rabbit has. The Cheshire Cat—who I animated a few years back and who disappeared on me for the rest of the day—peers over her shoulder. The dormouse and me—except for today—flank Alice. I’m sculpted with a crazed shit-eating grin splayed on my face, but never smile when I’m in skin. Gotta give the face muscles a rest. A fellow named George Delacorte Jr. had the Alice piece made in the 1959 in honor of his late wife, Margarita. The ensemble was shaped by José de Creeft, who on a blessed whim put magic in me. Old de Creeft was a wizard as well as an artist and gave me the gift to spring to life once a year, for a day at a time, and to bring four others with me. I suspect he figured I’d bring Alice—who supposedly looked like de Creeft’s daughter, Cheshire, the dormouse, and Rabbit. Excepting for Cheshire those years back, I’d made my choices from elsewhere in the park.

          “Why art they so—”

          “They’re shiny ‘cause the kids can’t keep their hands off ‘em. Shiny from thousands of oily fingers that have polished the bronze to that patina.”

“It fairly glows,” Bill said. “Beautiful.”

“Yeah, it is that, ain’t it?”

The duck quacked.

One-from-Seven didn’t say anything.

Plaques around the sculpture were filled with inscriptions from Lewis Carroll’s book. Bill went from one to the next, intently reading. He scratched his head when he came to a poem chiseled in the granite circle that surrounded the work.

The bard cleared his throat and recited: “Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe.”

“It’s from the Jabberwocky,” I explained, as I stooped to pick up an empty soda can.

Bill managed to break the arms of another purse-snatcher before sunset. But I said we had more important villains to deal with.

To that, Bill replied: “In peace nothing so becomes a man as modest stillness and humility; but when the blast of war blows in our ears, then imitate the action of the tiger; stiffen the sinews, disguise fair nature with hard favored rage—” He paused. “King Henry V.”

“Well, let’s go imitate that tiger, shall we? I promise it won’t be easy.” They followed me back toward the castle. “The purse snatchers, the drunk, the guys pestering the woman feeding the pigeons, that was nothing compared to what’s ahead of us.”

The shadows were stretching long, giving us some cover. The park and me were connected, and so I knew there were a few more cops than usual on horseback and on foot . . . probably looking for whoever was breaking arms. I didn’t want them to stop us; I had plans. Part of me didn’t think they were looking too hard, though; no innocent folks had been injured, after all.

“Thou hast in mind?” Bill prodded as we cut down a path lined with ginkos, English and American elms, and hornbeams.

“Remember how I said things have gotten much better here?”

He nodded, as did One-from-Seven.

The duck quacked.

“And that there were some problems with drugs and gangs . . . that would be the Crips and Bloods.”

“Montagues and Capulets?”

“Uh, not exactly.” The path narrowed here and the shadows swallowed us. Park lights were coming on, and their glows showed through gaps in the branches. The scents from the food vendors were all but gone, most of the carts packed up. The park stayed open to midnight, but unless there was a concert or something else going on, most of the cart owners went home after sunset. “Anyway, the whole city’s been cleaning up its act, but gangs and drugs are still—”

“Vexing, Sir Mad?” He drew his lips into a thin line. “Pragging rump-fed miscreants?”

“You have a way with words, Bill.” I stopped when One-from-Seven flattened himself against the trunk of a tall elm. The sky was suddenly filled with birds. When the flock passed, we resumed our course. “I can sense things in the park. Even when I’m bronze I can feel what’s going on. I relish that, most of the time, ‘cause mostly what I feel is an infectious joy. People tend to be happy when they’re on the grass.”

 “But the miscreants?” Bill pressed.

“No joy from them. Greed, anger, all sorts of troubling thoughts. Hate. I can sense all those things, too. It’s a real mix of emotions. A nasty head-trip.”

“Is that why thou art called Mad?”

I shrugged. “Oh, there’s some happiness in the . . . miscreants . . . as they like taking people’s money, getting high, and their emotions spike when they’ve made an impressive deal, scored something, beaten a rival gang member to a bloody pulp. But it’s not the same joy as the good people of the city feel and that pulses through the ground and into my sculpted feet.” I paused as a sand hill crane passed by overhead and One-from-Seven cowered. “This park . . . this magnificent place . . . is the real heart of the city.”

Bill put a sympathetic hand on my arm.

“And those . . . pragging rump-fed miscreants . . . are twisting it.”

I knew the worse of them conducted their deals near the castle, in the shadows where the park lights didn’t reach, and late in the evening when the dark hid their features and their vile transactions. Heroine and cocaine mostly, the park’s heartbeat told me, and the people who traveled in this part of the park at night were looking to sell or buy.

I explained to Bill and One-from-Seven that we were aiming to stop them.

“They might have guns,” I warned them, not bothering to explain that to Bill. “Semi-automatics, switchblades, you-name-it. And we’re flesh right now. They can hurt us. I got cut up pretty bad when we went after a couple of them last summer.” I touched the brim of my hat. “It was me and Christopher Columbus, Daniel Webster, and Duke Ellington. We came out of it all right, though. Managed to catch two dealers and chase off the third and their customers.”

The wind picked up, and the trees rustled. Faintly I heard a car horn and music, some bluesy piece featuring a soprano sax. After a few moments, the music faded. We were deeper in the trees.

“At the end of this path. I can feel them. More of them than last year. Something big is going down. There’s only a few of us, and—”

“We few,” Bill said, as we crested the rise and the castle came into view. “We happy few, we band of bronze. From now until the end of the world, we shall be remembered. For he today that sheds his blood with me, shall be my brother; be ne’er so vile, this day shall gentle his condition. And gentlemen in New York City now abed, shall think themselves accursed they were not here, and hold their manhood’s cheap whiles any speaks, that fought with us upon this midsummer’s night.”

There were eighteen of them . . . Crips . . . pacing, talking, waiting . . . for what? Drug dealers didn’t travel in such numbers—there were three last year in this very spot. We couldn’t take eighteen. Nineteen, one came around the corner, zipping up his pants. What were they waiting for?

I touched Bill’s arm and whispered. “The odds. We can’t do this.” I gestured for us to go back the way we came. Maybe next year the numbers would be—

“We happy few.”

I sucked in a breath of surprise. The words were One-from-Seven’s.

“We band of bronze. For he today that sheds blood with me—” And then One-from-Seven was away, rushing toward the gang, right hand pulling back, fingers fumbling with the cork and pin of the Mills bomb. It was an early-version hand grenade, heavy, and after he lobbed it he flattened himself against the ground. I heard a whistle and sensed it hit the grass. It was so dark, I couldn’t see where it landed.

I blinked as the ground erupted, clumps of earth and pieces of gang members showering up. The duck waddled forward, quacking in challenge. Bill charged just as One-from-Seven got to his feet and hurled his second bomb. “Get down!” he hollered.

Bill dropped in response and I skittered fast, passing by the duck. One-from-Seven found cover behind a tree. There was the whistle, and the thud that I felt more than heard, shouts from the Crips, then another explosion. My face was wet. I brushed it away—blood.

“Though abominable doghearted hedge-pig!” Bill cried as he met the charge of one of the four survivors. My feet churned across the loam to close the distance just as Bill broke the arm that held a switchblade. I’d nearly reached Bill’s side when he snapped the ganger’s neck and dropped him. Then both of us dropped to our knees just as a semi-automatic sprayed the air where our heads had been.

One-from-Seven drove forward, knocking down the one with the gun and wrestling the weapon away. Bill and I raced toward the two remaining, who were both fumbling to pull pistols.

“Thou viperous white-livered infection!”  Bill took down the closest, wrapping his arms around the ganger’s waist. There was a sickening crunch as the Crips’ back broke, the scream dying with him.

I was on the other, nimbly vaulting over the fallen form of one of the Crips done in by a Mills bomb. He aimed the gun at me, but it was shaking. His hand was trembling and his pock-marked face was spotted with his fellow’s blood.

“Surrender,” I offered.

The gun started to lower as Bill moved in.

“Thou qualling pumpion,” Bill declared as his hands grabbed the ganger’s head and twisted.

I’d heard enough Shakespeare plays in the park to know they were filled with bloodshed . . . Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet. Bill had a vicious streak that served us well tonight.

“That’ll about do it,” I said.

One-from-Seven proved I was wrong. Our soldier was armed, a semi-automatic in his left hand and a pistol he’d picked up off one of the other bodies in his right. He fired both in a sweeping pattern, some of the bullets biting into the ground, but others into the legs of a group of Bloods. I was right; the Crips had been waiting for something. There was going to be some sort of . . . rumble . . . was the term I’d settled on as Bill and I sought cover around the corner of the castle. I’d thought a drug deal was going down. The drug deals must be happening elsewhere; I’d concentrate on finding out just where after we cleaned up this mess.

“To be, or not to be: that is the question: whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles. And by opposing end them? To die—” Bill’s Hamlet speech was cut off by a burst of automatic weapon fire; some of the approaching Bloods were returning One-from-Seven’s fire. “—to sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub. For in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil.”

The Bloods continued to fire, but most of them ran. One-from-Seven made quick work of the ones who tried to fight back. He’d been sculpted to represent a seasoned veteran, and so somehow he had all the skills of a New Yorker who saw action in France during World War I. The Bloods didn’t stand a chance. When One-from-Seven ran out of ammunition, he rolled from one body to the next, grabbing up more guns and firing them from the cover of corpses.

I’d chosen wisely after all, this year. My band of bronze had slain the nineteen Crips, as well as eleven Bloods. Only nine Bloods lay on the field by the castle, but One-from-Seven tracked two that had fled and cut them down.

Our deeds would extend beyond this day, I was certain. There would be news coverage, and word would spread about the carnage. The gangs might stay away from my park for a long while. I know that all life is supposedly sacred, but I care not a whit about ending the life—or, rather having one of my fine fellows doing it—of some soul who threatens to sully my park.

We had just enough time to nab a dealer selling heroine before we had to resume our resting spots. We escorted the duck back first, carried him, actually. He’d been hit by a stray bullet, and he died in my hands as I laid him at the feet of Hans Christian Anderson, who had returned while we were on patrol. He looked incredulously at us and said something in Danish.

One-from-Seven was next. He dutifully climbed back up on his pedestal and arranged himself so he was again supporting his wounded comrade. He had a helmet now, not a military one that fit with his fellows’ but rather a motorcycle helmet that he’d picked off one of the gangers. In place of the Mills bombs he had a pistol in each hand, oddly modern. I hoped no one would notice.

“Anton,” he said. “My name is Anton.”

“Good night, Anton,” I returned.

“When shall we three meet again in thunder, lightning, or in rain?” Bill posed, looking up into Anton’s stoic face. “When the hurlyburly’s done. When the battle’s lost and won.”

“From Macbeth,” Anton supplied.

“Next year,” I told Anton. “I’ll come get you.”

I escorted Bill back to his pedestal. “Parting is such sweet sorrow,” I said.

In the gleam of a park light I saw his eyes twinkle. “We are such stuff as dreams are made of,” he returned as he climbed up and resumed his classic pose. “And our little life is rounded with a sleep.”

“Sleep well, my friend. I will see you again on another midsummer night.” I doffed my hat and bowed to him, and then I scampered back to Alice. “I am the stuff of dreams,” I told her, knowing full well she couldn’t hear me. I felt my limbs stiffen and grow cold. I sensed the police swarming over the battlefield around the castle. Of my own volition I displayed a wide shit-eating grin.

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