SHORT STORY By Thomas Shess.
Based on characters developed for the novel Cantina Psalms.
He heard a woman scream.
She was close by.
Tom Gresham jumped off his office sofa. He had been asleep. Light from the hallway shone through his opaque glass door. He couldn’t remember any of the tenants in the two-story building working so late. So far, the only one he knew involved with the building was the property manager, who was based downtown.
As for the other tenants, he hadn’t met any of them in the three months since the grand opening of his investigations agency at Granada and University in San Diego's historic North Park neighborhood.
He grabbed his snub nose .38 from his desk drawer and moved into the chilly hallway.
The office door at the far end of the hallway was wide open. Lettering on the glass door read Emily Slater Tax Services.
Inside a radio was playing softly.
He stepped inside. Fresh coffee was mixing with the aroma of stacked duplicating paper.
Gresham stopped cold. Contents of her purse had been rifled through and dumped on the floor. He heard a stumbling overhead that sounded as if a heavy box was being dragged across the roof, Gresham flashed on how the landlord had avoided fixing the lock on the main door downstairs. It was open 24 hours.
Any jerk could come off the street and see her alone.
Gresham returned to the hallway. "Where are you?"
"On the roof," the woman yelled.
Gresham hustled up the stairs. The door to the roof was open.
Emily Slater was struggling with a transient.
“Stop it. Just let go of me,” she was furious.
The bearded man had his arm around her head.
“Let go of her,” Gresham shouted and assumed a two-handed police stance. He aimed the gun at the man’s face.
“This is no business of yours,” the red-headed man turned. He was holding a small paring knife at the woman’s jawbone beneath her right ear.
Gresham put his index finger to his lips. He didn’t want her to scream again. Steadily, he moved forward. “Drop the knife!”
“You’re no cop.”
“Last time. Let go of her.”
“I’m dealing with this scene, man. Go mind your own business?”
Gresham cocked the blue plated revolver.
“You take one more step and she gets cut—bad.” The bum drew a thin line of blood on her neck.
“You’re a second away from having five bullets into your ugly face.”
“Braver than you. I’m not the one holding a knife to a woman.”
“Don’t step any closer!” the bum shouted. He moved the knife away from her throat and pointed it toward Gresham.
That move freed the woman’s right hand. Instantly, she lashed at his face scraping long nails across his forehead.
The man howled in pain. Blood from the gash on his eyelid blurred his vision.
She followed with a fierce uppercut under his chin. His tongue was mashed between his teeth. Blood flooded his mouth.
The small knife hit the floor.
Gresham kicked it away
Still close to her assailant, she slammed her knee into his crotch. The blow blew the air out of his lungs. Her nails tore at his ear as she pushed him to the asphalt covered roof. She wasn’t finished. Hell-bent she yanked the man’s head into the air by his greasy hair then slammed it hard on the metal corner of an air-conditioning vent. Blood poured from his scalp.
“Whoa, whoa. You got him down. Slow down.” Gresham pulled her away with his left hand.
The woman was drenched in adrenaline. “I got five kids at home. I’m working my ass off through tax season and this bastard wants to get cute. I’ll show him what cute is.” She pulled away from Gresham only to step around him to kick the bum in the ass.
“That’s enough. You clean his clock any more and no one will believe he attacked you.”
Emily Slater, her dark hair now pulled back into a ponytail, sat on his sofa sipped the tea she had made for herself, Gresham and the two investigating cops. She glanced at Gresham, who was sitting on the corner of his desk. “You smoke?”
The patrolwoman saw the unlit cigarette in Emily's hand and handed her a small book of matches from a pocket on her leather service belt.
“Thanks. Doctor tells me I shouldn’t smoke. If I thought it made a difference, I’d stop.”
Gresham noticed no sign of her calming down.
The bum, however, had sustained enough damage that the male officer called the paramedics. The gash along the back of his head needed stitches. Emily blew her smoke away from Gresham.
“They seemed disappointed that I refused to go to the ER."
"You got his blood on you."
"I want someone to take his dna. That scum probably has every known disease,” she said.
He half smiled and noticed discoloration under her eyes. Two classic shiners were making their debut. “You should go to the emergency room. He cut your neck, too.”
“The paramedic took care of it.”
“Look, that knife was ugly. You have to get a tetanus shot at least.”
“I have a doctor’s appointment every day this week. I’ll have them take a look at it.”
“You need anything?’
“No, I called my boys while you were talking to the officers in the hall. I told them I’d be late getting home. They’ve been going through hell lately and now this. I didn’t have the heart to tell them over the phone. I’ll tell them when I get home.”
“How old are they?” “Fourteen, 12 and the triplets are ten.”
“That is a basketball team and one monster food bill,” Gresham smiled.
“They’re all I got.”
“What are you going to tell them?”
“That always seems to work,” Gresham said.
“Thanks for everything you did tonight,” she said, “I thought I could handle him sooner. I did what he told me and kept waiting for an opening. He was stronger than I thought. And God did he have booze breath.”
“Actually you handled yourself nicely once you got away from the knife.”
“I took a couple of self-defense classes at the Navy wives club. Are you sure you don’t have any smokes here?”
“I’d offer to drive you home, but I don’t have a car.”
“Really. You’re an odd duck. I thought everyone had a car?” “I just moved her from San Francisco. I didn’t need a car there and I...”
She interrupted, “That’s OK, I’m parked on the street."
Gresham took a long look at her face. He hadn’t seen such discoloration happen so quickly. “Maybe you should go see a doctor—your eyes and cheeks are getting really bruised.”
“The medication I’m on makes any bruise I get really ugly.”
“I’m sorry.” Gresham thought for a second then decided not to ask any more personal questions. But he did wonder if there was a husband or boyfriend in the picture. If so why wasn’t he here?
“Look, you’ve been an angel,” she repeated, “I’ll bring the donuts tomorrow.”
“I think you deserve a day off.” Gresham walked her to her car. “By the way, did you know the bum?”
“I’ve seen him around.”
“Did you tell the officers that?” “No. I didn’t want them to think there was something going on between us.”
“Smart.” he said, then paused before saying “cops back off on domestic beefs, but I think you should press charges. Pulling a knife on you ups what he did to a felony. Assault with a deadly weapon."
“I saw the guy once. I think he’s a bartender at Tammy Shanters on Ray Street. He waited on us?”
“I went there for a birthday drink with my neighbor.”
“Remember his name?”
“Not really. Until tonight I haven't given him a second thought."
“Don’t be nice. He had a knife, Emily. Press charges. You don’t know that guys record. Let’ the cops figure it out.”
“How do you know so much.”
“I was a cop.”
She nodded, “Where?”
The postman stuck his head into Gresham’s office. “Did the tax lady go out of business? I can’t get anymore stuff into her mailbox.”
“I haven't seen her.” It was then that Gresham realized it had been more than a week since Emily Slater beat the bum senseless in her office. The linebacker-sized postman shook his head. “She’s such a nice lady. Hope she’s not back in the hospital.”
“Really?” Gresham saw sadness in the man’s face. The postman continued, “She told me she has leukemia. Bad stuff. She’s been in and out of remission. She’s such a good person. Every cold day she makes me coffee. I don’t get too many chances to sit for five minutes. But she’d always ask about my family. She makes everyone feel like family. And, I keep drinking her coffee and delivering mail from clinics, hospitals, doctors, and insurance companies—you name it. It just ain’t fair.” The postman spoke slowly in a baritone that made his words seem like a news broadcast.
“She have a husband?” Gresham asked. “Jeez, that’s the worst of it,” said the mailman. “Kids are all on Social Security, plus what’s left of the Navy insurance. Their father was a Navy flight instructor. I don’t know the details but it was a training accident.”
“How long ago was that?” “She told me once, I forget. But it has to be at least ten years. She told me she was pregnant with her triplets when it happened.”
“That’s a lot of punches for one family to take,” Gresham said. “It has to be tough on her—having all those boys."
The postman didn’t answer. Instead he wore a helpless expression. “Say, I almost forgot my job. Sorry, man. She was on my mind because I got this letter for you from her. I’m not so god damned nosy all the time. I just feel like she’s family,” he repeated.
Gresham took the letter. The return envelope was on Emily Slater’s stationery. The handwriting looked like one of her boys addressed it. “Wait,” Gresham said to the postman. “What’s your name?”
“Wait. I’d like you to be here when I open this.” Both men’s faces were solemn. The clumsy, but neat handwriting turned out to be a dinner invitation. Gresham smiled. “It’s not bad news.”
“Good,” the postman’s shoulder’s straightened up. “That’s good news right there.”
Gresham read on. “Thank you very much for helping our mom the other day. We would like to invite you to dinner on Friday, February 12 at 6:30 p.m. We would appreciate the courtesy of a reply.” A stamped envelope was included.
“They just invited me to dinner,” Gresham smiled. “All five boys signed it.” Bill Anderson grinned. “A personal thank you--that’s something special. That’s great, I can’t get my kids to pick up after themselves.”
"Want to go?" Gresham asked.
"I wasn't invited."
"You can be my date."
They laughed. "You tell me how it went," the postman said.
Emily Slater and her boys lived at the end of Granada Avenue where the North Park community ends and becomes Switzer Canyon. On the south side of the wide shrub choked canyon is Burlingame, another bungalow neighborhood south of North Park.
It was an upscale one-story early 20th century craftsman home with some paint chipping happening on the window frames and the upstairs roof fascia, but the lawn and shrubs were trimmed and green.
The sun was about an hour from setting basking the city in its famous Mediterranean glow. It was a light that inspired artists to either grab their paintbrushes or their golf clubs. From the side of the house the view was of the nearby municipal golf course.
A small plaque was posted above the doorbell. It read: The Dunlap House, 1915. Historical Landmark No. 139.
A young teen, almost Gresham’s height answered the door. He was wearing dark slacks, a white shirt and a tie that most likely his mother picked. “Mr. Gresham, welcome aboard, sir. I’m Josh Slater.”
Gresham didn’t pay attention to the firm handshake, instead he looked at the receiving line. Five sons oldest to youngest, tallest to smallest stood in the foyer of the gumwood paneled home. They were dressed the same as Josh. “Gentlemen, thank you for the invitation. You have a beautiful home.” Gresham arrived wearing gray slacks, a red vest sweater over a white shirt and blue tie.
The triplets smiled. The one at the end of the line looked confused. He whispered to his sibling. “He’s not wearing a coat.” The middle triplet smiled and turned to his brother. “Then, don’t ask him to hang it up in the closet.”
Josh pointed toward the dining room, “A famous architect named Douglas Dunlap designed the house in 1915. Mom said to give you a tour. She’ll be down in a minute.” Gresham admired the rich ruby color of the wood wainscoting. The walls of the adjacent living and dining room were painted in tans and muted green. Hardwood oak floors were covered with Gingko patterned area rugs. “Mr. Dunlap and his family lived in this house for a long time.” Josh said.
“It’s our house,” said the second brother.
Josh stopped. “This is my brother, Douglas.”
“Doug. Call me Doug.”
Gresham shook hands down the line. “Doug doesn’t like to dress up. He’d rather be killing aliens on his computer.” Gresham smiled. “What kind of computer?” “Mac 24, the big one.”
“Nice, Big Mac. That’s what I have.” Doug, who was three inches shorter than his brother, smiled revealing a mouth full of braces. “That’s cool. My mom’s computer if from last century. It’s in her bedroom.”
Doug Slater stood behind the triplets, who were eager for their time in the spotlight. They squirmed.
Josh put his hand on the head of each brother as he introduced him. “This is Matthew…”
“Matt. I’m Matt. Pleased to meet you.”
Gresham shook hands.
The ten-year-old had a firmer grip than his older brothers.
“This is Mark.” The triplets were identical. Gresham was trying to associate each with the different color of ties.
“And, this must be Luke.”
“No. I’m Michael.”
“Ah, of course, my pleasure. Is it Mike or Michael,” Gresham shook the silliest hand.
“Mike, the Monster.” Josh said.
“Are you going to be our new dad?” Mike asked bluntly.
Josh rolled his eyes. “Mr. Gresham is our guest for dinner.”
Gresham actually was ready for such a question. “You have a wonderful father. No one will ever replace him.”
“Thank you, sir,” Josh grabbed his brother by the ear. “I’m sure there’s something for you to do in the kitchen.” He marched Mike out of the room.
“We’re in the Majors already.” Matt stepped forward.
"Is that little league?”
“That’s great. Do ten year olds get to play with the 12 year olds.”
“Unfortunately,” Doug said.
“But, we play just as much as you do,” said Mark.
The younger Slaters didn’t share the darker coloring of the eldest brothers. Instead they had reddish streaks to their brown hair. Josh and Doug’s complexions were pale, while the trio had ruddier skin.
All five had a row of freckles crossing ear to ear across high cheeks and perfectly shaped noses. They were all brothers for sure.
The dining room table was a stunning piece of shining oak. Place mats instead of a tablecloth revealed the subtle beauty of the patterned inlays, a design that was repeated in the eight chairs. The place settings were precise. The china and crystal glassware had distinctive Frank Lloyd Wright designed. A massive lantern shaped period chandelier was muted and gave off a gold light
It was not an architectural style Gresham was familiar with, but in the short time he had been in North Park, he admired the neighborhood’s upscale bungalow chic.
“You’ll excuse us, sir, we have things to do in the kitchen,” Doug shepherded his brothers to the back of the house. Josh returned. “I hope you weren’t too mortified by Mike.”
“I am having a good time. I can’t remember the last time I had a home cooked meal.”
Next to the living room was a large parlor that had French doors leading on to a large wrap around front porch. The walls were covered with family photos. Josh led Gresham to a series of framed photos on a cellaret. He pointed to a uniformed naval officer who was standing next to a small boy. “That’s me and my dad. All of these photos are of me or Doug with dad.” Gresham leaned forward.
“That’s an F-35. Oldie but goodie."
“Yes sir, he’s standing on the deck of the U.S.S. Obama. He was a fighter pilot in the Ukrainian War then became a flight training instructor. He taught other pilots how to land on carriers.”
“I can’t think of a more difficult job,” Gresham said. He could see from the photos that the younger Slater men looked very much like their father. Only Josh had the delicate features and coloring of his mother. Gresham looked around the room. Framed were many of his father’s medals, including a framed letter of condolences from the President.
“What’s your father’s name? “Michael Edward Slater, Jr. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy. That’s where I want to go.” Gresham looked at Josh. There was no sadness in the boy’s face.
“I was told your father was killed in a crash.”
“A first timer missed a wave off, sir. The rookie pilot panicked. A large crosswind surprised him and he slammed it into the deck. Dad went down with him.”
“I’m sorry, Josh.”
“That was his job, sir. They were working for our country. I hope to do the same thing.”
“Keep your grades up and you won’t have any trouble.”
“Yes sir. Mom said you’re a private detective.”
“That’s what I do for a living.”
“Have you always been a detective?”
“I was a cop for 10 years in San Francisco.”
“That’s a tough job, too.” Josh said.
Gresham smiled. “Not as tough as landing on an aircraft carrier at night. So what’s for dinner?”
“Roasted chicken, brown rice with gravy. Spinach salad sautéed fresh carrots and cut green beans and Parker House rolls. Do you drink wine, sir?”
“No. Water is fine.”
Josh walked to the dinner table and reached underneath for a small button to press.
He walked back to the mantle over the fireplace and pointed to another photograph. “Dad was awarded a Navy Cross.”
“Makes you pretty proud of him doesn’t it?”
“Yes sir, but…” Josh didn’t finish the sentence. Mark or Mike or Matt interrupted. The youngster was wearing a white apron that hung down to his ankles. “You rang,” he grinned. “No wine. Instead we'll all have cranberry juice and San Pellegrino water.”
“You guys run a tight ship here. Your mom must appreciate it.”
“It’s easier to run a neat house than it is to find things in a messy one,” he said.
“Is that your line.”
“No. It’s moms.”
“How is she feeling?” “My mother has terminal cancer, sir. We’ve been told by the doctors she has about three months to live.”
Gresham blinked at Josh’s bluntness. It wasn’t an answer he expected. “I can’t tell you how sorry I am to hear that.”
“Hear what?” Emily Slater said softly as she walked into the parlor. Gresham was stunned. She was beautiful. She absolutely glowed.
“Josh was telling me you’re not feeling well,” Gresham finally said.
“I’m fine. Dinner is about to be served. Did Josh give you the executive tour?”
“Yes, I am impressed with your boys and your husband’s accomplishments.”
“I’m blessed to be surrounded by good men,” she smiled. She was wearing a dark mahogany colored dinner gown with a matching jacket that elegantly complimented her pale complexion. Her hair was fuller and much more styled that the last time he saw her.
“I’m so glad you could make it,” she grabbed Gresham’s hand and led him to the kitchen. “They’ve been working like bees since your RSVP.”
“This is great. Is this all their work?’
“Yes. I’m more buttoned down than their father would have ever been with them. But I want them to be gentlemen.”
“You’ve succeeded, Emily.”
“I hope so.” She led him into the kitchen. Standing with her back to the counter was a very attractive woman in her late 20’s, who had a remarkable resemblance to the boys. She was dressed for dinner while the boys in the kitchen still had aprons on.
Gresham laughed to himself. He could now recognize Mike. He was the one with the reddened ear.
Douglas was slicing the roasted chicken, while the triplets were filling the salad bowls and carrying them out to the table. “This is my sister Marie, Emily said. She's my husband's sister. Aunt Marie."
Gresham reached across and shook her hand. There was pinkness to her skin that was crowned with auburn shoulder length hair.
“You look beautiful, Emily,” Marie said with a perfect smile.
“You’re both gorgeous,” he smiled.
“Emily, I see you brought us a charmer.”
“The men invited him,” Emily nodded to her sister with a hint of a chiding gesture.
“Josh, shall we sit down?” Marie said as she picked up the rolls.
“Parker House rolls,” Gresham said, “I haven’t had them in years.”
Mike bit into his roll and said with a mouthful, "we call them French rolls."
"I like those, too," Gresham laughed.
"Don't let them fool you. They're old fashioned midwestern rolls," Emily said, "We're from Nebraska."
At dinner, Gresham learned that Marie was a government attorney, who had recently moved from Boston to San Diego. Until she landed a house for herself, she lived with the family. There was hint of a divorce, but Gresham was avoiding as many conversational landmines as possible.
He learned the boys shared all household responsibilities. Josh handled the bookkeeping for his mother. They organized the shopping, including constant UBER runs to the supermarket. And, although, he was only 14, Josh could drive the SUV if necessary. The younger boys were in charge of cleaning, laundry, dish washing, trash collecting, cat feeding, landscaping and anything that needed to be fixed.
Marie funded most of the household expenses.
Gresham walked to the kitchen with Marie, carrying his dessert dish. The boys were busy clearing the table. Douglas was making coffee and Josh was loading the dishwasher. “They’re classy kids. I can’t believe how efficient they are,” Gresham said to Marie.
“Believe me they weren’t this way when my brother was alive. They were the biggest collection of piggies that I had ever seen. They were a mess. And, their schoolwork was falling away, especially Josh. They were well on their way to being regular punks.”
“I don’t believe it,” Gresham said, “This isn’t something that they can fake. They’re perfect.”
“When Emily knew her cancer had returned she sat them all around the kitchen table and told them she was dying. She had invited one of Josh’s teachers, who is a priest from Saint Augustine High to help break it to the boys. “Father John worked with their grief. This didn’t happen right away, but soon the boys realized what they had to do. Basically, Father John told them that life wasn’t always fair that God must have had a bigger need for their parents,” Marie said. “Emily asked me if I could help Josh and Doug raise the triplets. I moved out here in a heartbeat.”
“That was good of you. But had to be complicated?”
“I lost a fiancé over my decision. The guy’s going to be Governor of Massachuesetts some day, but family comes first.”
“I saw first hand, Emily is a fighter. She’s battling this isn’t she?” Gresham asked.
“Of course, but what can she do? The Navy has brought in some of the top cancer doctors to handle her treatment. They’ve been great, but so far she hasn’t caught a break.”
"Well, I can see she’s made sure she’s left you five gentlemen to help you run the household."
"I'm a very lucky woman.” Marie cleared her throat. “I want to thank you for helping Emily that night in her office. I stop thinking about what could have happened.”
“That bastard was lucky I was there because Emily was about to put him into bum heaven.” “DA isn’t after felony charges. The guy didn’t have prior convictions for assaulting women,” Marie said. “Emily said she wouldn’t press charges if he went into chemical rehab.”
“Did he?” “He better because the slime met his match.” Marie turned to see her sister enter the kitchen.
“I thought for a minute they put you to work,” Emily said smiling at Tom. She carried in a glass of red wine into the kitchen, “Can I interest anyone in a glass of port?” Gresham smiled. “Water’s fine besides I was telling her my life story.’
Marie grinned, “He was not. I was telling him how proud I am to be your sister.’
“Well, if you keep this up I’m going to need the entire bottle.”
Tom, who promised not to drink alcohol after he left Jenner Rehab Hospital a year earlier raised his hand, "I change my mind. I'll have a glass of your port.
Emily and Tom toasted while the triplets were making short work of the dinner dishes.
Douglas was storing away the leftovers into the refrigerator.
A triplet stepped on the hem of his apron.
Josh grabbed him before he fell to the floor. “It’s just not your day, is it, Mikey.” Josh said with emphasis.
The best grin of the evening came from the red-eared baby raccoon.
“Coffee is served,” Douglas said.
“Perfect,” Gresham said. “Lead the way.”
Josh linked arms with his mom escorting her to the parlor, where the boys had set up a dessert buffet as was fitting for the man of the house. The excellent souffle took Gresham's mind off his own mother, the woman who instructed Fr. MacDonald to take care of her boy.
Seeing the triplets eye the dessert made Gresham quickly change moods. "I was a fine dinner," he reached over to touch Emily's hand.
Marie grabbed Josh in a headlock and kissed his forehead.
"OOOooo, Get a room," Mikey squealed. No one else in the room had powdered sugar on their faces.