A Time for Legends/The Unicorn’s Daughter ~ a review by William Kendall

A Time For Legends is the original name of the book, as published by Berkley. Norma would have preferred her title, The Unicorn’s Daughter, which is the title she’s re-releasing it as for an ebook. The novel is a sprawling tale, set over several decades between World War Two and the 1980s, using world events as a backdrop. The emotional core of the story, and its greatest strength, is the bond between a father and daughter.

James Lynde starts out the story, signing up for service in the OSS during the war. He serves behind the lines throughout with resistance fighters in occupied Europe, aiding the efforts to overthrow the Nazis, and quickly discovers he’s rather good at the work he does. He and his colleagues have codenames drawn from mythology, and his is the Unicorn. He comes through the war in one piece, and gets the opportunity as the Cold War heats up to join the fledgling CIA, doing the same thing he’s already been doing, just with a new adversary.

His boss, Harry Warner, warns that he’ll have to develop a good cover to move through the new Europe, and he comes across one, marrying into the family of a former senator and going to work in the family investment firm. It gives him a place in society, a reasonable cover, and the opportunity to travel in rough places without excessive scrutiny. Unfortunately he doesn’t actually love the woman he married, though he does a good job (at first) of covering it up. A few years into their marriage, his wife Fran gives birth to a daughter, Jaime, who from the start has her father wrapped around her little finger.

Problems arise, of course. Fran becomes depressed and withdrawn, resentful even of her daughter, who’s headstrong and stubborn. The state of her marriage and her life leads her to take her own life, an event that weighs heavily on both father and daughter. Later, James disappears on one of his trips abroad, and Jaime is told that he’s dead, a fact that she cannot accept, a status that continues to have an effect on her.

Jaime grows up in the custody of an aunt and uncle who have their own secrets. She becomes successful as a photographer, but still haunted by the absense of her father. She discovers that her aunt and uncle have lied to her about James’ death when she finds letters and packages from him posted after his death, causing her to wonder if she’s even related to them at all. And it drives her to start asking more questions, to seek out the truth about her father. Death follows close behind as Jaime presses for answers. The journey brings her to hearing conflicting stories about what really happened to him, including the allegation that he’s committed fraud and treason. It takes her to Europe and North Africa, meeting an American embassy official, Nicholas Kendall, along the way, a man she falls in love with. And the trail leads right into Libya, at the same time as Gadhaffi (take your pick on the spelling of the First Rate Nutbar’s name) is increasing tensions with the United States.

With Angels At Midnight, the story was about revenge, but it was also a love story. Here, the love story is a sideshow to the real plot. Nicholas, indeed, doesn’t show up at all until halfway through the book. The bond between father and daughter is integral to the narrative, and even in his absense, the reader feels his presence. Norma does a terrific job in conveying the strength of that bond, and it drives the action forward. It’s the heart of the book, and it breathes life into what’s happening. I really enjoyed the way she brought this about, giving it a very natural feel to the way the story unfolded.

And she’s gifted with characters. Fran’s point of view as her mental stability deteriorates is a good example. We feel empathy for the character, seeing the world through her eyes, and her choice is tragic. Indeed, so much about her is tragic, and getting into her head helps us to understand. The connections- and similarities- between James and Jaime also come across beautifully in their characters. They’re both strong, stubborn minded people, both seeming to be of the “hang the consequences” way of thinking. Even with minor characters, such as Jaime’s “uncle” Harcourt, we see a man who feels regret over his own part in the deceptions- even though we understand in the end that it was nessecary.

Norma also has a talent for paying attention to details. This can be found throughout the book, in terms of Jaime’s journies and the places she sees, the observations she makes about people. One moment that I liked in particular features Jaime, Nicholas, and her father’s old partner Jack Forrester having dinner in an Algerian hotel, and Norma describing the meal itself… I’ve had a meal like that, and yes, it’s delicious. It’s small details like that which open up a fictional world.

The book is firmly set in the real world, which I really like. The events of world history form the backdrop of the novel, and particularly towards the end, we see the power brokers of Washington playing roles in what was actually going on. The novel reaches its climax during the highest tensions of the Libyan crisis in 1986, and Norma uses the air strikes ordered by President Reagan as part of her narrative. It’s a thrilling finish, and a terrific, satisfying resolution to the narrative.

I highly recommend the novel. It’s a jigsaw puzzle of sorts, and I like jigsaw puzzles. Jaime Lynde is a sympathetic character with depth who seeks to move on with her life by resolving the unanswered questions of her past. She has to sort through the secrets and lies, put the puzzle together. Along the way, we the reader are doing the same, wondering what’s true and what’s a cover story. And by making the novel so close to the real world, Norma succeeds in giving it the extra edge of authenticity. With the way the Middle East has been turning about lately, it’s all the better to read.

 

William Kendall is the author of the upcoming Heaven & Hell (WMD Books 2012)

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Missing the Point?

Yesterday at church, it was announced that, because Christmas falls on Sunday this year, there would be no church services that day. Huh? No services on Christmas? Isn’t that kinda like having a birthday celebration without the guest of honor?





Seriously, I do get it. One does not have to be in church to worship God or to celebrate Jesus’ birth. One can worship in their own home, in the beauty of nature, in a car in rush hour traffic, or anywhere else. God is everywhere. And as long as our Christmas celebrations commemorate what the holiday is really all about, we’re good.


My grandmother used to go to church every Sunday. Grandpa, on the other hand, read his Bible down by his still. Guess who knew it chapter and verse?





And here’s a bit of advice: forget about Santa. God knows when you’re sleeping, when you’re awake, when you’ve been bad or good…. If you’ve been good, breathe a sigh of relief. If you’ve been bad, well, I hear those life reviews on the other side can be painful. You get to see every screw-up you’ve ever made. And when you’re asked when you want to be for eternity, you’d better have the right answer!





Bear in mind that He doesn’t care how much money you’ve made, how successful you’ve been, what property you own or other such unimportant crap. He cares that we have loved well. He cares how we’ve treated others  (being an animal lover, I like to think this includes all creatures). He cares that we’ve accepted his gift of salvation and put Him first in our lives.


Not too long ago, I told my pastor I believed God created me to be a warrior. Much to my surprise, he didn’t disagree with me. I didn’t get that look that says so much without a word. He said he thought I’d been made a warrior to enable me to survive all I’d experienced. I’ll take it one step further and suggest that he made me who I am and gave me the experiences I had for two reasons: one, I had pride issues. Of all the Seven Deadly Sins, that’s the one that always gave me the most trouble. I had to hit bottom to free myself of it, and I had to be a fighter to make the climb out of that pit. Sometimes, God lets us struggle, just as any parent allows their children to struggle to enable them to grow. I’d been a spoiled child who was given everything I wanted. I was a spoiled author who was given too much too fast. 


So I had to start all over again.





In the journey back from rock bottom,  I did evolve. I came back stronger, but also more compassionate. I have zero tolerance for the mistreatment of people or animals who are unable to defend themselves. Hey, I don’t mind kicking butt when the object of the butt-kicking really has it coming, but there’s no sport in kicking puppies!


I’m the one who will go to the animal shelter and, while everyone else is  snapping up the really cute puppies and kittens, I’ll seek out the most pathetic creature in the place–the one that’s old and scruffy, days away from execution, huddled in the back of the cage, looking as if he/she has lost all hope. Collin once said I’d look at the most butt-ugly critter on the planet and say, “Oh, isn’t he cute….”


Guilty as charged.


I leave you today with a final thought from the words of St. Catherine of Siena: “Be who God meant you to be and you’ll set the world on fire.”


I invite you to check out William’s and my discussion on collaborations at Writers of Mass Distraction and the new look Collin and I created for Sam’s Story, along with William’s review of A Time for Legends (The Unicorn’s Daughter) at  Speak of the Devil and  Beishir Books!



Review: Pretty Witches All in a Row by Lisa Olsen

For anyone who has doubts about the quality of self-published books, I have a suggestion for you that can be summed up in two words: Lisa Olsen.
Lisa is one of the finest new authors to come along in recent years. I’ll be doing reviews for her other books in the weeks to come, but let’s start with Pretty Witches All in a Row. In this spectacular novel, she blends the police procedural novel with elements of the supernatural that makes me think of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series.


Someone is killing the members of a coven. Enter Detective Nick Gibson, a practical, down-to-earth cop/single father of a teenage daughter, a man who’s having a hard time buying into the idea of witches and covens and prophetic dreams. Will he fall under the spell of the beautiful Annaliese, a self-professed witch who’s a member of the targeted coven? Has she really had premonitions of the murders in her dreams, or could there be another reason for her knowledge of the murders? Is Nick a fool to trust her?
Ms. Olsen is a skilled writer whose expert pacing keeps the story moving. She weaves the elements of fantasy into her real-world setting with confidence and populates her fictional world with well-developed, believable characters. This is a book you’ll have a hard time putting down. And even though the ending is quite satisfying, you’ll undoubtedly be begging for more!


First-person vs. Third-person Point-of-View

I had never written a novel in first-person POV until Final Hours, and never thought I would. But that novel seemed to me the type of story that had to be written in first-person.

I quickly discovered that not only was it not as restrictive as I thought I would be, but indeed quite liberating. I could write in the character’s voice, telling his story, getting inside his head–and I loved it. Final Hours hadn’t been intended to be more than a one-shot thing, but I really wanted to write in first-person again.

It didn’t seem to be in the cards…at first. I’ve been working on Same  Time, Tomorrow with William, a novel that would really work well in multiple first person, but he wasn’t crazy about the idea. I’ve also been working on An Army of Angels, the second book in the Chasing the Wind series with Collin. I could see it in multiple first-person POV–but to do it would mean having to go back and rewrite CTW in first-person as well. That couldn’t be done. Could it? You tell me. Here’s a few scenes from An Army of Angels, first in third-person, then in multiple first-person….

THIRD-PERSON:

Robyn Cantwell didn’t know exactly what it was about Alex Stewart that so intrigued her, but she’d been drawn to him from the moment she met him at the bus station. Sure, he was different from the others she’d known at the shelter. He was very good-looking and intelligent, but that wasn’t it. No…she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. She knew only that she had to reach out to him, help him in any way she could.

By the time she finally got to go home, she was exhausted. She had worked fourteen hours straight at the shelter after five hours of post grad classes at the university. She braked her old SUV to a stop in the driveway and went inside. The silence of the night was immediately interrupted by the enthusiastic welcome she received from her extended “family”–twelve dogs and seven cats of varying sizes. She made her way through the kitchen, stopping just long enough to drop her backpack on the table and hang her jacket on the back of a chair. She went on to her bedroom, noting with weary amusement that her brothers hadn’t even heard her come in. And nobody ever remembers to lock the doors, she thought as she peeled off her clothes, slipped into a faded old football jersey that was three sizes too big, and collapsed on the bed, too tired to even take a shower.

She thought she’d fall into a deep and immediate sleep, but she ended up lying awake several hours before finally drifting off. Her thoughts were on Alex. He cracked jokes, but she had the feeling he’d left something quite disturbing behind, wherever he’d actually come from.

Most of the people she encountered at the shelter had left something behind, usually not by choice, and they longed to go back to their “old life.” Not Alex. He seemed to want to forget his past life even existed. What, she wondered now, could have been so awful that he would rather live like this than go back?

***

So what is it you plan to do with the rest of your life?” Alex asked over lunch at Wienerschnitzel. He was celebrating his first paycheck from the animal shelter job by taking Robyn out for a meal that, for once, was not served at the homeless shelter.

She licked chili from her fingers. “Actually, I could be happy there at the shelter on a long-term basis,” she insisted, “but since you asked, I’m going to be a teacher.”

Yeah?” he took a drink from his Olympic-sized soda cup. “A teacher of what?”

Art,” she said. “I plan to work with mentally disturbed kids. Art is wonderful therapy.”

I can testify to that,” he said, popping a French fry into his mouth. “Art’s gotten me through many a rough spot in my life.”

She straightened up, intrigued. “You’re an artist?”

He nodded. “Amateur, but I’d like to think I’m good enough to go pro.” He didn’t tell her he’d studied at the Sorbonne in Paris.

I’d love to see some of your work sometime,” she said honestly.

Be careful what you wish for,” he said, unzipping his backpack.

You have it with you?”

He grinned. “I live in a homeless shelter. Where would I leave it?” He pulled out a large sketchbook and passed it across the table to her. She tuned the pages slowly, carefully. She was amazed. “This is incredible,” she told him. “I didn’t pursue a career as an artist myself because I knew I’d never be as good as I wanted to be–but you’re truly gifted, Alex. You’ve never tried to sell any of your work?”

He shook his head. “I’ve done it mostly for myself,” he said. “It’s been a long time since I’ve shown it to anyone.”

Why?”

He shrugged. “It was a sore subject back home,” he confided. “My father didn’t want me to become an artist. He had other plans for me–wanted me to join the family business.”

What family business?”

Doesn’t matter,” he answered evasively. “Not anymore.”

Do you believe in God, Alex?”

Her question took him by surprise. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “I used to think none of this could possibly have happened by accident–but then, how could this world be the mess it is if there’s some all-powerful force at the helm?”

Sin,” she summarized.

Yeah, right.” He paused. “I guess I’ve just seen too much to believe in the fairy tale they tell in Sunday school.”

There it was again, the implication that he’d come from something so awful that he wanted only to put as much distance as possible between himself and the past. His past. “Like what?” she asked.

He considered his response for a moment. “I don’t know. A lot of things,” he said. “A while back, I was in Alabama. This elderly woman, she was really old and could barely walk. Some bum of a landlord had her evicted. There she was, out on the streets, this poor creature, and she had nobody. People swarmed in like a bunch of locusts, taking her belongings, like it was some big yard sale, only everything was free. I mean, they took her furniture–and it wasn’t anything special. Even a lousy stuffed flamingo–some woman drove up and sent her kid out to rip off this poor old woman! I came up on her as some big jerk was about to haul her washing machine away. She was trying as best she could to stop him–told him it was hers, and this idiot told her she’d been put out and didn’t have any rights!”

Robyn shook her head. “There’s no excuse for such behavior.”

Alex nodded. “Tell me about it.”

What did you do?”

I punched him out,” Alex said with a grin. “Spent the night in jail, but it was worth it.”

What happened to the old woman?” Robyn wanted to know.

I heard she got another place,” Alex said. “As soon as I was released, I went back there, but she was already gone. There was a little junk left on the sidewalk. The landlord was there–no better than those jerks who were ripping her off. I asked him how he could do that to a sick old woman. He said it wasn’t his responsibility to take care of someone just because they were sick.”

Robyn shook her head. There were no words.

 ***

 Alex sat in front of a computer at the public library, staring at the image on the monitor in disbelief.

He’s dead?

It couldn’t be. Finding Andrew was his last chance, his only chance of getting the answers he needed. His only chance to find out what the future held for him. There was no one else he could turn to, no one in whom he could confide.

He continued to stare at the image on the monitor. Andrew was chronologically older by nine years. His hair was longer and he had a beard.

Alex’s hand went to his own hair, short and spiky. He saw his own reflection in the monitor as well. At first glance, they were no longer identical….

***

Alex hauled a squirming, soapy mutt from the washtub and turned the spray on him to rinse him off. The little ingrate managed to wiggle himself free of Alex’s grasp and shook his whole body violently, showering Alex with suds. “Dirty little rodent!” Alex laughed, hauling him up by the scruff of his neck and returning him to the rinsing sink. “Here I am, trying to be Mr. Nice Guy, and this is the thanks I get!”

You really like these guys, don’t you?”

He turned. Robyn stood in the doorway, watching him with open affection in her eyes. “Employees only allowed back here,” he said, looking around to make sure nobody on the staff had seen her come in.

Relax,” she told him. “As I told you before, I have special status around here, thanks to my record number of adoptees. Nobody’s going to say anything.” She paused. “Except maybe hello, which would be better than I got from you just now.”

Hello,” he offered weakly.

Hello. Be ready to go soon?”

Give me ten minutes–I don’t think you want me in your SUV like this.” He gestured toward his soaking wet clothing.

I’ve had a lot worse in that old klunker.”

Ten minutes.” He dashed off to change into the dry jeans and shirt he kept there for just that purpose.

***

 “I was beginning to think you wouldn’t even come here for a visit,” Robyn said as she braked her SUV to a stop in the driveway.

Did I ever say that?” Alex pushed open the door on the passenger side and climbed out just as her army of pets came charging across the yard to greet them. “None of them bite, do they?” he called out to her.

Some of them don’t even have teeth,” she laughed. “About half of these guys are really, really old. Old critters in shelters are hard to place–a shame, since they make such good pets.”

Most people who come in are looking for puppies or kittens,” Alex agreed.

They don’t know what they’re missing.”

Alex grabbed the grocery bags in the back seat as the animals ganged up on Robyn. She reached into her backpack and took out a large freezer bag full of treats, tossing them out. The animals grabbed them enthusiastically.

Alex followed her into the house via the torn screen door off the kitchen. The kitchen was big and cluttered. Jackets hung on the backs of the chairs. Food and water bowls were lined up against one wall. Dishes were piled up in the sink, and the trash can overflowed.

I see Paulie forgot to take the trash out,” she observed with a shake of her head.

I can do that,” he offered.

She nodded. “Great. There’s garbage cans out front, at the end of the drive,” she said, in case he hadn’t noticed them when they came in.

He nodded and gathered up the trash. It took him less than five minutes to do the task. “Any other odd jobs I can do while I’m here?” he asked when he returned.

Maybe after dinner.”

Alex loved her house. It was homey. Lived in. Very different from where he’d grown up. His parents’ home had been almost antiseptic. His father was a control freak who wanted perfect order at all times. He couldn’t remember ever being allowed to leave toys in the middle of the floor or get dirty at play.

I’ve changed my mind,” Alex told Robyn over dinner.

About what?” she asked.

Your offer, if it’s still open,” he said. “I’d like to move in here–temporarily.”

She nodded. “Of course the offer stands. As you can see, there’s plenty of room.”

For three?” he asked.

Three?”

I want to adopt two of my buddies from the shelter,” he explained, grinning. “But to do that, I’ve got to have a home to take them to.”

She laughed. “They got to you, didn’t they? Y’know, when anybody makes references to ‘dumb animals,’ I always find that funny, because they’re not dumb at all. They just speak a different language.” She passed him the potatoes he wasn’t able to reach in spite of his best efforts. “Sometimes, I think they conspire to get themselves adopted–like one turns to another and says, ‘Watch me get that sucker over there to take me home,’ or ‘Hey, he looks like he eats well. I’m going where the food is!’”

Alex nodded. “They probably do, at that.”

So who’d you get snookered by?”

He laughed. “Snookered?”

Don’t make fun of my vocabulary–that’s a word I got from my grandma,” she said, tossing scraps under the table, which created a feeding frenzy.

Wouldn’t dream of it,” he assured her. “To answer your question, I’m taking Garfield and Odie.”

Garfield and Odie?” She roared with laughter. “You are kidding–”

It fits, believe me. Wait’ll you see these two together,” he said. “The cat’s fat, lazy and manipulative, and the dog’s an idiot.”

Apparently not so much of an idiot that he couldn’t do a snow job on you,” she pointed out.

All right, so maybe he did.” Alex paused. “You have to see this mutt to believe him–he’s so dumb, you have to wonder how he managed to stay alive out on the streets. And the cat…broader than he is tall. No exaggeration.”

Robyn smiled. “I’m glad you changed your mind about this, Alex. I think you’ll be happy here.” She paused. “I should probably warn you, though.”

Warn me?”

This is as quiet as it will ever be around here,” she told him. “When everybody’s here, it can get pretty crazy.”

I was sleeping in a bus station when you found me,” he reminded her. “Does it get crazier than that?”

She laughed. “You have a point.” Then: “I do think you’ll like it here, once you adjust to the chaos.”

I know I will.” He paused. “This is the first home I’ve ever been in that actually felt like a home.”

She hesitated. “What about your own home?” she finally asked.

He shook his head. “That was more like a hospital than a home,” he remembered. “Sterile, antiseptic, never cozy. Never comfortable.”

Sounds like fun.”

Anything but,” he said. “My father had a thing about germs.”

Like Howard Hughes?” she asked, recalling the eccentric millionaire’s descent into mental illness in his last years of life.

Yeah. Times ten.”

Then Alex abruptly changed the subject. Again….

***

You two are going to love Robyn,” Alex told his new pets as he prepared them to leave the shelter. “You’re going to love having a real home. It’s going to be a first for all of us, you know.”

The dog gave him a blank look. The cat pointedly ignored him.

He found their resemblance to the comic strip characters uncanny. The cat was huge, and he could eat nonstop. Anything that isn’t nailed down or on fire, Alex thought, amused. The dog was eager, affectionate–and pathetically stupid. You need to be looked after, old boy, Alex decided. And I need someone to look after.

Someone to love.

Loving another human being was out of the question. Animals, he’d learned from Robyn, were the next best thing. Animals were safe.

Animals didn’t ask questions he couldn’t answer.

MULTIPLE FIRST-PERSON:

Robyn

I don’t know exactly what it is about Alex Stewart that intrigues me, but I’ve been drawn to him from the minute we met at the bus station. He’s different from the others I’ve known at the shelter. Yes, he’s very good-looking and intelligent, but that’s not it. No…I can’t quite put my finger on it. I know only that I have to reach out to him, help him in any way I can.

By the time I finally got to go home that night, I was exhausted. I’d worked fourteen hours straight at the shelter after five hours of post grad classes at the university. The house was almost too quiet—at first. My house is never quiet. Never has been.And it didn’t last for long that night. They quickly discovered I was home, and the enthusiastic greeting I got from my extended “family”–twelve dogs and seven cats of varying sizes—was overwhelming. They all came running. The sound of them thundering through the house sounded like just that–thunder. They crowded around me in the darkness, welcoming me home. I petted each one, as I always do. I finally managed to get past them, through the kitchen, stopping just long enough to drop my backpack somewhere and hang my jacket on the back of a chair. I could barely drag myself upstairs to my bedroom. Funny…my idiot brothers hadn’t even heard me come in. And nobody ever remembers to lock the doors. I peeled off my clothes, slipped into a faded old football jersey that was three sizes too big—I like them that way–and collapsed on the bed, too tired to even take a shower.

I thought I’d go to sleep right away, but ended up lying awake several hours before finally drifting off. I was thinking about Alex. He cracked jokes, but I had the feeling he’d left something quite disturbing behind, wherever he’d actually come from.

Most of the people I encountered at the shelter had left something behind, usually not by choice, and they longed to go back to their “old life.” Not Alex. He seemed to want to forget his past life even existed. What could have been so awful that he would rather live like this than go back?

Alex

So what is it you plan to do with the rest of your life?” I asked Robyn over lunch at Wienerschnitzel. I was genuinely interested. I found myself wanting to know everything about her, yet not feeling I had the right to ask. I was celebrating my first paycheck from the animal shelter job by taking Robyn out for a meal that, for once, was not served at the homeless shelter.

She licked chili from her fingers. “Actually, I could be happy there at the shelter on a long-term basis,” she insisted, “but there’s something else I want to do. I’m going to be a teacher.”

Yeah?” I took a drink from my Olympic-sized soda cup. “A teacher of what?”

Art,” she said. “I plan to work with mentally disturbed kids. Art is wonderful therapy.”

I can testify to that,” I said, dipping a French fry in ketchup and poking it into my mouth. “Art’s gotten me through many a rough spot in my life.”

She perked up like a bird dog at point. “You’re an artist?”

Had I opened Pandora’s Box? “Amateur, but I’d like to think I’m good enough to go pro one day.” I didn’t tell her I’d studied at the Sorbonne in Paris. It would open me up to questions I wasn’t ready to answer.

I’d love to see some of your work sometime,” she said, her gaze meeting mine. She had the most beautiful eyes.

Be careful what you wish for,” I said, unzipping my backpack. I hadn’t shown my stuff to anyone in a long time, but I found myself wanting to share it with her.

You have it with you?”

I couldn’t resist laughing. “I live in a homeless shelter. Where would I leave it?” I asked. I pulled out my sketchbook and passed it across the table to her. She tuned the pages slowly, taking it all in. I could tell she was amazed. “This is incredible,” she told me. “I didn’t pursue a career as an artist myself because I knew I’d never be as good as I wanted to be–but you’re truly gifted, Alex. You’ve never tried to sell any of your work?”

I shook his head. “I’ve done it mostly for myself,” I said. “It’s been a long time since I’ve even let anyone see it.”

Why?”

I just shrugged. “It was a sore subject back home,” I confided. “My father didn’t want me to become an artist. He had other plans for me–wanted me to join the family business.”

What family business?”

Doesn’t matter,” I answered, not really wanting to talk about that part of my past. “Not anymore.”

Do you believe in God, Alex?”

Her question took me by surprise. “I don’t know,” I admitted. “I used to think none of this could possibly have happened by accident–but then, how could this world be the mess it is if there’s some all-powerful force at the helm?”

Sin,” she summarized.

Yeah, right.” I paused. “I guess I’ve just seen too much to believe in the fairy tale they tell in Sunday school.”

Like what?” she asked.

I considered my response for a moment. It’s true that there are three topics guaranteed to start a debate: sex, money and religion. The last thing I wanted was to end up arguing with her. “I don’t know. A lot of things,” I said, deliberately vague. “A while back, I was in Alabama. This elderly woman, she was really old and could barely walk. Some bum of a landlord had her evicted. There she was, out on the streets, this poor creature, and she had nobody. People swarmed in like a bunch of locusts, taking her belongings, like it was some big yard sale, only everything was free. I mean, they took her furniture–and it wasn’t anything special. Even a lousy stuffed flamingo–some woman drove up and sent her kid out to rip off this poor old woman! I came up on the whole mess as some big jerk was about to haul her washing machine away. She was trying as best she could to stop him–told him it was hers, and this idiot told her she’d been put out and didn’t have any rights.

Robyn shook her head. “There’s no excuse for such behavior.”

I nodded. “Tell me about it.”

What did you do?”

I punched him out,” I said with a grin. “Spent the night in jail, but it was worth it.”

What happened to the old woman?” Robyn wanted to know.

I heard she got another place,” I said. “As soon as I was released, I went back there, but she was already gone. There was a little junk left on the sidewalk. The landlord was there–no better than those jerks who were ripping her off. I asked him how he could do that to a sick old woman. He said it wasn’t his responsibility to take care of someone just because they were sick.”

Robyn shook her head. I could tell she was thinking the same thing I was thinking. It would be the first of many times we would share one thought.

***

I hauled a squirming, soapy mutt from the washtub and turned the spray on him to rinse him off. The little ingrate managed to wiggle himself free of my grasp and shook his whole body violently, showering me with suds. “Dirty little rodent!” I laughed, hauling him up by the scruff of his neck and returning him to the rinsing sink. “Here I am, trying to be Mr. Nice Guy, and this is the thanks I get!”

You really like these guys, don’t you?”

I turned. Robyn stood in the doorway, watching me with open affection in her eyes. It made me nervous. No matter how I felt, I would mever be able to give her what she wanted, needed. “Employees only allowed back here,” I said, looking around to make sure nobody on the staff had seen her come in.

Relax,” she told me. “As I told you before, I have special status around here, thanks to my record number of adoptees. Nobody’s going to say anything.” She paused. “Except maybe hello, which would be better than I got from you just now.”

Hello,” I said, feeling like a total jerk.

Hello. Be ready to go soon?”

Give me ten minutes–I don’t think you want me in your SUV like this.” I gestured toward my soaking wet clothing.

I’ve had a lot worse in that old klunker.”

Ten minutes.” I went off to change into the dry jeans and shirt I kept in my locker.

 ***

I was beginning to think you wouldn’t even come here for a visit,” Robyn said as she brought her old SUV to a stop in the driveway.

Did I ever say that?” I pushed open the door on the passenger side and climbed out just as her army of pets came charging across the yard to greet them. “None of them bite, do they?” I called out to her.

Some of them don’t even have teeth,” she laughed. “About half of these guys are really, really old. Old critters in shelters are hard to place–a shame, since they make such good pets.”

Most people who come in are looking for puppies or kittens,” I agreed.

They don’t know what they’re missing.”

I grabbed the grocery bags in the back seat as the animals ganged up on Robyn. She reached into her backpack and took out a large freezer bag full of treats, tossing them out. The animals grabbed them enthusiastically.

I followed her into the house via the torn screen door off the kitchen. The kitchen was big and cluttered. Jackets hung on the backs of the chairs. Food and water bowls were lined up against one wall. Dishes were piled up in the sink, and the trash can overflowed.

I see Paulie forgot to take the trash out,” she observed with a shake of her head. I could tell it didn’t really bother her, but….

I can do that,” I offered.

She nodded. “Great. There’s garbage cans out front, at the end of the drive,” she said, in case I hadn’t noticed them when we came in. I had.

I nodded and gathered up the trash. It took me less than five minutes to do the task. “Any other odd jobs I can do while I’m here?” I asked when I went back into the house.

Maybe after dinner.”

I loved her house. It was homey. Lived in. Very different from where I grew up. My parents’ home had been almost antiseptic. My father was a control freak who wanted perfect order at all times. I can’t remember ever being allowed to leave toys in the middle of the floor or get dirty at play.

I’ve changed my mind,” I told Robyn over dinner.

About what?” she asked.

Your offer, if it’s still open,” I said. “I’d like to move in here–temporarily.”

She nodded. “Of course the offer stands. As you can see, there’s plenty of room.”

For three?” I asked.

Three?”

I want to adopt two of my buddies from the shelter,” I explained. “But to do that, I’ve got to have a home to take them to.”

She laughed. “They got to you, didn’t they? Y’know, when anybody makes references to ‘dumb animals,’ I always find that funny, because they’re not dumb at all. They just speak a different language.” She passed him the potatoes I wasn’t able to reach in spite of my best efforts. “Sometimes, I think they conspire to get themselves adopted–like one turns to another and says, ‘Watch me get that sucker over there to take me home,’ or ‘Hey, he looks like he eats well. I’m going where the food is!’”

I nodded. “They probably do, at that.”

So who’d you get snookered by?”

I laughed. “Snookered?”

Don’t make fun of my vocabulary–that’s a word I got from my grandma,” she said, tossing scraps under the table, which created a feeding frenzy.

Wouldn’t dream of it,” I assured her. “To answer your question, I’m taking Garfield and Odie.”

Garfield and Odie?” She roared with laughter. “You are kidding–”

It fits, believe me. Wait’ll you see these two together,” I told her. “The cat’s fat, lazy and manipulative, and the dog’s an idiot.”

Apparently not so much of an idiot that he couldn’t do a snow job on you,” she pointed out.

All right, so maybe he did,” I confessed. “You have to see this mutt to believe him–he’s so dumb, you have to wonder how he managed to stay alive out on the streets. And the cat…broader than he is tall. No exaggeration.”

Robyn smiled. “I’m glad you changed your mind about this, Alex. I think you’ll be happy here.” She paused. “I should probably warn you, though.”

Warn me?”

This is as quiet as it will ever be around here,” she told me. “When everybody’s here, it can get pretty crazy.”

I was sleeping in a bus station when you found me,” I reminded her. “Does it get crazier than that?”

She laughed. “You have a point.” Then: “I do think you’ll like it here, once you adjust to the chaos.”

I know I will.” I paused. “This is the first home I’ve ever been in that actually felt like a home.”

She hesitated. “What about your own home?” she finally asked.

I shook my head. “That was more like a hospital than a home,” I remembered. “Sterile, antiseptic, never cozy. Never comfortable.”

Sounds like fun.”

Anything but,” I said. “My father had a thing about germs.”

Like Howard Hughes?” she asked, recalling the eccentric millionaire’s descent into mental illness in his last years of life.

Yeah. Times ten.”

Then Alex abruptly changed the subject. Again….

***

You two are going to love Robyn,” I told my new pets as I prepared them to leave the shelter. “You’re going to love having a real home. It’s going to be a first for all of us, you know.”

The dog gave me a blank look. The cat pointedly ignored me.

I found their resemblance to the comic strip characters uncanny. The cat was huge, and he could eat nonstop. Anything that isn’t nailed down or on fire. The dog was eager, affectionate–and pathetically stupid. He needed to be looked after. And I need someone to look after.

Someone to love.

Loving another human being was out of the question. Animals, I’d learned from Robyn, were the next best thing. Animals were safe.

Animals didn’t ask questions I couldn’t answer.