Thursday, September 26, 2013

Friday Fiction for September 27, 2013

Friday Fiction is hosted this week over on Karlene A. Jacobsen’s blog. If you came here first, make sure you get over there to find the Linky widget and the other submissions for your weekend reading pleasure.

Starting sometime in the next week or two, “Marta’s Pod” will get the professional editing in preparation for publication. When I first wrote “Cardan’s Pod,” I finished that story, but the characters just wouldn’t leave me alone. I immediately launched into writing the sequel, which not only became “Marta’s Pod,” but also ended up as the longest single story I’ve written to date. At one time, I considered trying to divide it into two stories, but there were so many things happening concurrently in that time span of the tale, that any attempt to make it into two books would inevitably result in spoilers. One book would reveal key outcomes of the other. I elected to leave it as one book, though I have pared it down by around 15000 – 20000 words from its peak length.

This week, I thought it would be fun to post a “teaser,” with the opening events of the book. This is about five years after the closing events of “Cardan’s Pod.”

Marta’s Pod
Trouble is the common denominator of living. It is the great equalizer.
~ Soren Kierkegaard

          Gerald Lawton removed the mail from the box, and sorted through the stack. The junk mail was gathered together beneath the important pieces, which included several bills and statements from insurance companies. An envelope from a County Recorder was held separate from the other mail, as he stepped back through the open front door.
          He glanced momentarily at his son. Mark Lawton sat in a wheelchair, silently watching a television talk show. The young man’s expression revealed nothing of his thoughts on the program. Mark had the same reaction regardless of what was on the screen. “You want me to change the channel?” Gerald asked.
          Mark shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. I doubt there’s anything better on, anyway.”
          He shook his head. “Up to you,” he said. “You could do something else besides watching junk.”
          “Sure, Dad. Maybe I’ll go for a run. Oh wait - I can’t. I don’t have any stinkin’ legs.”
          I know, son, Gerald thought. You remind me every chance you get, it seems. What happened to the smiling, upbeat kid we raised? Did they have to amputate your sense of humor after the accident, too?
          Entering the kitchen, he dropped the junk mail in the recycle bin without slowing his step, and took the bills to the sorter by the refrigerator. Once his hands were free, he used his pocket knife to slice open the end of the remaining envelope, and removed the document inside. He unfolded it, and looked it over as he reached for his mug of coffee. “Linda?” His hand stopped shy of the cup handle.
          “Is that Mark’s Birth Certificate?”
          He shook his head. “It’s not his.” He handed the document to his wife. “They sent us one for some gal named Marta Lawton. You’d think they would have checked the parents’ names and seen that they didn’t match.”
          “Gerald?” She handed the certificate back to him. “They do match. We’re listed as Marta Lawton’s parents.”
          “What? How?” He read over the form. “This lists Anthony Marcel as the delivering physician, too, but this one is dated six years after Mark was born. I know we used to have a copy of Mark’s birth certificate, and everything was correct. Where did this one come from?”
          “I don’t know.” She turned her head in the direction of the living room. “I would certainly remember if I’d ever had any other children besides Mark.”
          He slapped the certificate onto the dining table. “I’ll have to call them today, and get them to send the right certificate. They’d better not charge me for the correct copy.”


          A week. That was all it had taken for what should have been dismissed as a stupid clerical error to turn into a family crisis. I got a thirty-four year old son acting like his life is over, and now I have to deal with Linda wondering if I’ve cheated on her, because some suspicious friend of hers suggested maybe I’d fathered a child with another woman, and tried to hide it by using her name. I don’t need this stress. Retirement was supposed to be relaxing.
          Gerald read over the listing of Private Investigators on the computer, and selected one that specialized in searching for people. This is going to be expensive, I know it, but it’s gotta be cheaper than a divorce, which is where we’re headed if we don’t figure out who used our names and why.

Chapter 1

Mothers are fonder than fathers of their children because they are more certain they are their own.
~ Aristotle

Linda and Gerald sat on the couch, facing the Private Investigator over the coffee table. A gap large enough for another person remained between them, which would not have been as likely before the suspicions and doubts caused by the wrong certificate.
The investigator looked over the notes in his hand. “The County Recorder’s Office had no explanation for how you received the wrong birth certificate in the first place.” He flipped to another sheet. “Errors of this nature are not supposed to happen. They verified that it is genuine, though they expressed confusion. About eight years ago, they changed formats, and while Mark’s certificate is the old style, Marta Lawton’s is the new. Considering it lists her birth date as almost twenty years before the new form was even considered, let alone adopted, it suggests this certificate was issued well after her birth.” He dropped the papers on the coffee table. “I explored several options on this, not the least of which is that both of your identities were ‘appropriated’ by someone for whatever reason. The easiest way to have verified that would have been to talk to Dr. Marcel and determine if he recalled the parents of Marta Lawton and what they looked like. Unfortunately, Dr. Marcel was killed in a lab accident almost ten years ago. However, his former associates all attested to his remarkable memory for names and faces. If he had strangers claiming to be you, they say he would have known immediately, especially considering how much time you say you spent with him. I would say this also tends to rule out that another woman was posing as you, Mrs. Lawton, since Dr. Marcel would have spotted that as well. He might have accepted that Gerald had divorced and remarried, but he would have questioned the coincidence of both wives having the exact same first and middle names. It’s not impossible, but the likelihood is very slim. I found it odd as well that, according to one person I spoke with, Dr. Marcel was no longer practicing obstetrics when Marta Lawton was supposedly born; he was working strictly research at the time.”
He sat back and folded his hands together. “I thought maybe Marta Lawton had been a non-entity, created for the purpose of defrauding the government or something. It wouldn’t be unheard of for someone to falsify birth records to try and gain some kind of funding for either their personal or departmental usage. However, no records existed of any such claims made on her behalf. In fact, I could find no childhood records of Marta Lawton at all. I considered that Marta Lawton was a new identity created for someone for purposes of hiding, explaining the lack of any records of her youth. That’s still a possibility, but in cases like that they usually take the name of someone who died in infancy, instead of creating a whole new personage. After all, if you’d had a daughter named Marta who’d died as a baby you wouldn’t be suspicious to find her birth certificate, would you? Now, finding her marriage license after you’d thought her dead? That would raise eyebrows. You’ll find a copy of that particular document in the stack I just gave you.”
He gave them a moment to look it over. “The pastor who married them would not tell me anything about her either, claiming confidentiality issues. Whoever she is, she apparently exists and is now married to Joshua Cardan, a rather wealthy if somewhat reclusive man. He gets out in public, but he doesn’t play the typical social scene much. I can find plenty of information about him, including a rather juicy story of his first wife trying to kill him for his money, and loads of pictures and records of his life. Marta Lawton Cardan, however, is a phantom. Their marriage license was issued without her present; no newspaper carried any mention of the wedding, even though Cardan would certainly merit scrutiny from at least the local gossip columnists. Marta Lawton Cardan does not have a driver’s license, though she does have a Social Security number. Even talking with some of Cardan’s associates, none of them have ever seen Mrs. Cardan, though they report that Mr. Cardan speaks lovingly of her and seems happier than he’s ever been.”
“What do we do now?” Gerald leaned back and crossed his arms.
“Every avenue I tried in contacting Marta Cardan was closed to me. I tried to find out where they live, but wasn’t able to get any clear answer. Joshua Cardan owns a number of properties, but he sold his house soon after the murder attempt. I tried contacting him, but he refused to take any of my calls. Very shortly thereafter, I was contacted by an FBI agent who advised me very strongly to drop my investigation. I might have narrowed down where he lives with a bit more time, but frankly I’m not going to call the FBI’s bluff on this. If the government’s involved, my hands are tied and I can’t even really give you advice; however, the number for Joshua Cardan’s office is in my report in your hands. Maybe if you get this wild idea to call and tell him you’re his wife’s parents, he might talk to you.”
“But we can’t be his wife’s parents.” Linda looked from the investigator, to Gerald, and then back. Say something, Gerald. Give me something reassuring.
The investigator gave them a smile. “My curtailed investigation was inconclusive, so maybe he doesn’t know whether you really are or aren’t. If he knows you’re just two people whose names got tagged onto his wife’s birth certificate, he may talk to you in order to figure out how to get you to drop this inquiry. Or, he might just talk to you because he thinks you are his in-laws. The worst that happens is you don’t get anywhere, in which case you’re in the same boat you’re in right now. But, of course, I can’t tell you to try anything like that.”

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Friday Fiction for September 13, 2013

Welcome to Friday Fiction, which I have the privilege of hosting this week! Look for the Linky widget below, and enter your submission for this week’s fiction reading.

It’s not often I write a story set in a non-sci-fi setting, but sometimes an idea pops into my head and just won’t go away. This scenario occurred to me this week, and kept circulating in my brain until I wrote it down. No mermaids or talking dogs or clockwork men or space aliens or other such this week – just a fool for your entertainment. I hope you enjoy.

A Fool’s End
By Rick Higginson

            He walked through the city streets, mostly ignored by the town’s people. The occasional child would notice him, and when they called to him he would perform a silly dance as he continued down the dirty road, but mostly he just walked.
            For a moment, the palace appeared ahead, just visible in the gap between two buildings, and he offered a silent prayer that the position had not already been filled. Performing in taverns and village squares, in the hope that the audience would be pleased enough to provide him with a meal, was not the most reliable livelihood.
            A soldier watched him approach as he climbed the steps to the palace, and the man’s hand went to the hilt of his sword. “State your business.”
            He bowed with a flourish. “My lord, I am Benito the Jester, and I have heard your most noble king is seeking a fool for his court. I have come to offer my services.”
            “Empty your bag.”
            “Yes, my lord.” He placed the threadbare bag on the stone and removed his props one by one, arranging them for the guard to see.
            The soldier grunted, and nudged several of the items with his foot. “Wait just inside.” He opened the door and stood to one side. “A servant will show you where to go.”
            Benito gathered his props and bowed again. “Thank you, my lord.” He passed through the door, and stopped just far enough inside that he would not be hit by the heavy wood and metal when it closed.
            After a few minutes, an old man approached and looked him over. “A fool are ye? Aye, ye must be, to have come to this place. Come this way, then.” He turned and headed back through the entry hall.
            Benito hurried to follow him. “So, the position is still unfilled?”
            The old man maintained a steady muttering to himself, and did not answer. Every few moments, he would cackle with amusement at something or other, but never shared whatever he had found funny. He finally stopped and opened a small door. “Ye wait in here, and be ye ready when his highness calls ye. His majesty don’t take kindly to bein’ kept waitin, ye know.”
            “Most certainly.” He gave the man a bow before entering the room. “Thank you, my good man.”
            The old man laughed as he closed the door. “Fools, the lot o’ them.”
            A single window high in the wall provided the only light in the room, which was just as well. The room had nothing to look at, and the only furnishing was a worn wooden bench in the far corner. Save for the lack of any lock on the door, it could have been a dungeon cell. I pray they have a better reception for visiting royalty.
            He sat on the bench and considered napping, save for the old man’s admonition. Instead, he mentally rehearsed his best material and routines, thinking over which ones to use depending on what his impressions might be of the king.
            The solitary beam of sunlight from the window marked the passage of several hours, as it moved from low on the opposite wall to well above his reach, and Benito began to wonder if he was to spend the night in the barren room. Finally, the door opened, and a man dressed in finer clothing stood outside. “The king summons you, fool. Come with me.” The man never looked directly at him.
            Benito flipped his prop bag over his shoulder, and followed with lively steps. He brought the smile to both his lips and his eyes, preparing both his mind and his body for the performance.
            The royal attendant stopped before a pair of ornate doors. “You are the third fool his majesty has seen this week. For your own sake, do not disappoint him.”
            “Thank you, my lord.”
            “Hold your thanks until after you have seen the king.” The man pulled the door, and gestured for Benito to enter.
            The king slumped in his throne at the far end of the room. A large expanse of open floor in front of the throne was lined on either side by guards, and covered in the middle by what had once been an exquisite carpet. Lighting in the room was provided by rows of torches along the walls, and the air was heavy with the accumulated smoke.
            Benito bowed low. “Your majesty.”
            The king waved impatiently. “Come forward, fool, and tell us your name.”
            He walked up the center, and stopped a respectful distance from the throne before bowing again. “I am Benito the Jester, your majesty.”
            The king leaned forward. “Well, Benito the Jester, we have seen two other fools in the past three days, and we will now tell you the same thing we told them. The one of you that pleases us most shall have the position in my court. Of the other two, one will be free to go, but the one who pleased us least will die.” He sat back in the throne. “Do not displease us.”
            He felt a twist in his gut, and his mouth went dry. “Forgive my impertinence, your majesty, but did you say that the penalty for not being as good as the other two, is death?”
            “Are you deaf, fool? Yes, that is what we said.”
            He kept his head lowered, and took a deep breath. “I am sorry, your majesty, but I cannot perform.”
            “To refuse us is to forfeit your life, fool. Do you not wish to live?”
            “Most dearly, your majesty, but for me to live is to bring laughter and merriment to the lives of people. I cannot imagine how I could ever do so again, if I knew that my performance condemned another to death.”
            “You would choose death, to spare the lives of two fools you have never met?”
            “Yes, my lord, because another chose death to spare the life of this fool. If I am to die today, then it will be so that I may go and perform in His court.”
            “Then so be it. Captain of the guard – our sword!”
            He remained bowed, even as the king’s feet came into his view. A polished blade dangled with the point just in front of the king’s ankles.
            “Is this still your choice, fool?”
            “Yes, your majesty.”
            The sword lifted from his view, and the king shifted his weight from his heels as he hefted the heavy weapon. Benito closed his eyes, and began a silent prayer as he waited for the stroke of the blade. Lord God Almighty, make it quick and merciful.
            A weight dropped to his shoulder, and then a hand to his other arm. “Arise, fool, and look at us.”
            Benito opened his eyes. The sword rested flat on his shoulder, and the king was on one knee. “Your majesty?”
            “We have many soldiers and knights who will go into battle at our command. They will fight and they will die at our word, and consider it honorable to do so. Many are noblemen, born and raised to the chivalrous arts, and yet, never have we seen such a man as we have seen today. Answer us truthfully, Benito the Jester – will you tell us when we are being fools?”
            “I do not understand, your majesty.”
            “We wish for you to serve in our court; to bring laughter and merriment to us, and to be bold enough to tell us when we are being foolish in our rulings.”
            “What of the other jesters?”
            “They are free to go, and to live with the knowledge that they would have traded another’s life for their own. They have proven that they are truly fools, and we will not have a fool in our court.”
            “But, I am a fool, your majesty.”

            “Nay, Benito. Your time as a fool is ended. By Royal Appointment, you are Benito, Noble Jester.”