Sunday, April 28, 2013


Many years ago I wrote  a crime novel based loosely on a 1988 case I handled.  The only person who ever read it but me was my friend an d secretary  who suggested I let it sit awhile.  It sat for more than a decade.  But when I found the floppy disc in a drawer I never use, I downlloaded it and I read it.  And I realized I had overcomplicated a simple story, but one that needed telling.  The problem is the pain it brings.  But that was a long time ago, a part of another life, and today I am going to share the First Chapter of my not quite fictional story with the visitors to my blog.   It is  still a rough  copy,  but bear  with  me. 



                        The good-looking man with the badge, the blow-dry hair and the gun he wore as a fashion accessory was charming the press. Damage control was all the man was good for, but at that, he was very, very good. He brought his tanning-booth tan back into the building and accepted a frosted bottle of Dasani from an adoring press assistant in a tight navy mini-skirt. Then he walked to where Liz was standing with the A.D.A. on one side and the Chief Trial Deputy on the other.
“You owe me,” he said smugly. Liz was heading for him, getting ready to knee him in the groin, when her Chief grabbed her by the arm and brought her back to grim reality.
“Let it go, Liz. It’s not as if he isn’t dealing with a major fuck up.”
Her stomach spewed bile into her mouth, but she swallowed it, breathing slowly, in and out, searching for an inner calm.
“Scott, you are such as asshole!”she yelled after the sheriff’s press secretary as he retreated, taking his pompadour with him for the ride. Neither her boss nor her boss’s boss thought she was being funny.
“Very professional,” the A.D.A. commented.
“What’s next?” she asked.
A genius in risk management, the Assistant District Attorney’s answer was as bland and predictable as he was.
“You’ll have to self-report,” he said, referring to the rule that required a prosecutor to file a statement with the state bar whenever a case was reversed for prosecutorial misconduct.
The Chief was less condemning. He had still been trying cases while the ADA was occupied shaking hands with people who were friends of the Governor. Not Arnie but the guy before him.
“I think we should look at it first --get Grover’s appellate people on it. It’s not as if that were the only grounds for the reversal. There was judicial error in instructions and that bum ruling on the Marsden Motion. I don‘t know that we can say that anything Liz did reached the beyond-reasonable-doubt standard that requires her to fall on her sword.”
“Dwayne, she called the guy a chicken-hawk!”
Both men looked at their star prosecutor, avenger of abused children, fallen angel.
“So? Braxton is a chicken-hawk. Besides, I don’t remember saying it. What I was asking is: what happens to the case, not what happens to me.”
“Not our call,” her Chief informed her. “That one is for the guy who makes the really big bucks.”
“Being, of course, the same guy who is currently spending the really big bucks on a contested election? The one whose name is on my D.A. coffee mug? ”
“The very same. Go home, Ms. Johns," the ADA pronounced. "Let it rest for a couple of days. Don’t go poking around until Monday. Maybe Tuesday”
“Am I suspended?”
“I believe we call it Comp Time. You’ll get your full paycheck,” the A.D.A. promised, as if that were among her worries. She shrugged and walked out of the building to her old Ford LTD, about the only thing in her life that she felt was dependable enough to trust.

It had been two years since the meeting in the molded plastic back booth at the Yucca Valley Mac Donald’s, still decorated with crinkle ribbon, strings dangling from the corpses of balloons left over from some little kid’s birthday party. It was where she and her case agent Rick Peterson usually met with Jeremy. It was a way to get some calories into him, and at off-hours offered more privacy than her small office or the cubicle that Rick, a cop from what residents of the high desert called “down below”, had snatched from one of the locals in Detective Division, which was a euphemism for the portable building that someone had bought at auction from the Marine Corps Communications and Electronics School in nearby '29'.
' The first meetings with Jeremy had been at his house in Wonder Valley. It was marked by a plywood signed that read Wonder Valley Rancho, and was propped against a stack of body parts only some of which appeared to have come from vehicles. Wonder Valley Rancho --another euphemism, since the only wonder in the place was how the mixture of plywood, clapboard and dog feces kept standing. The people there resembled left-over extras from a l950’s vintage low budget B-movie. Maybe not even a B.
Jeremy’s mother was a self-proclaimed white witch, and her serial boyfriends were all Warlocks, not from the horror flicks, but from the motorcycle gang. The only tracks of tires with tread came from the little Child Protective Services Ford Focus driven out to the ranch on a weekly basis by whomever in the agency had drawn the short straw. At least in the fast food haven, there was an illusion that times were goods, kids were happy, and that the future of the world was in hands of Ronald MacDonald instead of Jeffrey Dahmler’s ghost.
On that day in 2006 the trio had been one Big Mac away from normalcy, when Liz asked the fatal question.
“I know it is unlikely, Jere, but what will you and the other guys do if the jury doesn’t send Oliver to prison?” It was one of those bottomless pit questions a prosecutor had to ask. The answer she got was not the one she expected. What was worse, it came too quickly, too easily to be spontaneous, as if it had been openly discussed and decided in some other forum she didn’t want to know about.
“Then we’ll just have to kill him,”he said. His eyes had narrowed and he looked down at the freedom fries he was drowning in the catsup pool. There was no remorse for either Oliver or the potatoes. It sent a chill.
“Just kidding, Guys,” Jere had said, breaking into a catsup- outlined grin that gave him the appearance of a Halloween Dracula. He had wadded up his biodegradable burger wrapper and sent it sailing into Petersen’s non-biodegradable coffee cup. Jere had become a normal kid again.


It was as if it had all happened yesterday.
“Shit, shit. Shit,” Liz said to Mr. Nobody, the black adopted cat with whom she shared her pueblo-style ranch house in south Joshua Tree, near the National Park.
She found the old data base she had fortunately printed out before her most recent computer crash, and started punching numbers into her touch tone landline phone. Her cell was reserved for days when she didn’t care if she got a temporal glioma. Today she was obsessed with unfinished business. She didn’t have time for a brain tumor.
She thought she had missed him, but Petey picked up at the same time as the answering machine. “We have to have a meet,” she said to both voices on the other end of the phone connection. One or the other of them shut up, and the remaining listener responded with the single inquiry, “When?” It must have been Petey and not the computer-generated imitation of James Earl Jones, because the response came from a voice with a raspy cough.
“Tonight. Jerry’s. That way Mr. Nobody won’t be able to listen in.”
“Give me till eight. I have to see if my car still runs.” Petey said. “Grab a booth.”
“I know the drill,” she said. It was Thursday. Thursday at Jerry’s was prime rib night. She could pretend to be hungry.
To kill time along with her appetite, Liz Johns drove the short distance to the D.A.’s office, a part of the deserted courthouse complex, and used her electronic key to access the suite. It was empty, as she was certain it would be. She was the only local working in the office. All of the others were younger, thirty-somethings, and lived in Palm Springs where there were amenities such as night clubs, cocktail lounges, restrooms with toilet paper and locks that latched, multiplex theaters, Outback, T.G.I. Fridays, Zeldaz --the promise of a Life before Death. The Morongo Basin where she lived had one Starbucks and an Applebee’s. The social center of the basin was the Wal-Mart. It was just perfect for a forty-something divorcee with two absentee you adult kids who hated but tried to keep it a secret until their student loans were paid off. The only other thing besides Mr.Nobody that qualified as family was a mother living on Maui who sent her Kona coffee at Christmas, and resembled the image on the old Jane Fonda VHS exercise tapes.
Her office was the largest, because she was the supervising deputy. Her nearest overseer was the Chief who fortunately was more than an hour away, in Smogville. The case file would not be available. It would have been transported to the Attorney General’s office following the denial of the motion for new trial. But she had not sent everything. Her trial notes, extra copies of reports, contact addresses, argument notes and partial transcripts were in her own office, stashed in an Expando folder labeled Budget Reports 2004-2006 where her treasures were safely labeled as documents that even an intruding defense investigator would decline to read.
When she left the office with the folder tucked under her arm, she had an odd sensation of being watched. Guilty conscience. She had promised the A.D.A. she would stay away for a few days, maybe hang out at home with her cat and a good Chardonnay. Wallow. Wait for them to reassign her to Needles. Nevertheless, she scoped the parking lot before she walked to her car. Maybe next time she would think about locking it, she decided.


There is nothing tougher for a kid who has been a victim of child sexual assault than having to cope with the parents of a kid who has been a victim of child sexual assault. That was Jeremy Vance’s read on the situation. He and his little brother and most of his friends had been living happily with the independence that comes with chronic parental neglect, and then, the axe fell. Up until then, in a city, he would have been called a street kid, or a latch key kid, but in his world there were no streets and most of the latches were used on the outbuildings of meth labs. His next door neighbor had blown himself up using a propane torch to loosen some floor tiles in his kitchen without checking first to see what his brother-in-law had been doing with the glassware in the bathroom.
Before Oliver, Jere could have hidden out for days before anyone noticed. Bu! the arrests changed all of that. Out went the boyfriend’s porn flicks, and in came Haley Mills. The G-string movies made way for the G-rated ones that made Jere barf. Until then, he had no idea how many shaggy dogs who could do tricks lived on Hollywood back lots. His mother even brought home an old Disney with Kurt Russell when he still had short hair and sleeves on his shirts. Worse, the moms started talking to one another. The jig was up. Bam! Biff! Busted. Back to a life of Gilligan’s Island reruns. Thanks to Bob Crane’s bad press at the time of his death, even Hogan’s Heroes was taboo.
The kids with bucks had it a little better at first. The Stone twins had been taken on three trips to Magic Mountain in a single summer, throwing up on nine different roller coasters named after snakes and monsters. Jacob Drew’s cousin worked at the Knott’s water park in Palm Springs and his aunt took him there so often he got jungle rot in his outer ear and was forbidden to swim without earplugs. At least there were a couple of times when he was allowed to bring friends along. Jere had thought all the different pools and slides were pretty cool. That was in the summer before Jere’s little brother Nealy lost his leg at the knee, the last of the best.
That was before they took Paul away in the ambulance. The First Time.
After the trial and sentencing, the surveillance relaxed a little bit. The parents let Detective Petersen throw a party for the boys and the families at Luckie Park, hot dogs, buns, relish and drinks all provided by the Crimes Against Children’s detail of the Sheriff’s Specialized Detective Division. No booze so no Momma’s Boyfriend. It had been a good day--the first time Petersen had taken real snapshots. Whenever they had met before, the group shots were taken with the boys all standing straight and looking serious. Mrs. Johns had explained that they were growth charts, to be used as evidence if the boys grew a lot between Oliver’s arrest and the trial. They looked a lot like police line-ups, but Jere had begged a copy anyway and glued it to his mirror. Still, the Luckie Park shots were better.
There were days between Paul’s admissions to the Funny Farm when his Mom let him take Neal with him to visit at Paul’s grandmother’s house, which was in Yucca Valley near the west end of the national park by the horse camp, about half- a-planet removed from Wonder Valley. There was a new pueblo there with stables that people said belonged to a movie producer. They watched a blonde lady dressed western ride a white Arab. A movie star.
Then it all went bad.
  The day that Oliver Braxton got his conviction overturned, the Stone twins got put on what their mother called restriction, as if they had done something wrong.  Even Mickey-the-Crip who had no rules, got some.  Life was getting worse again.  Jere’s little brother Neal wet the bed . Nealy blamed it on asparagus that a neighbor gave to their mom from the four acre farm up the road, but Jere didn’t think so.  And Lorraine Stone called Mom to report that an ambulance had come up Godwin Road to Paul’s house and taken Paul back to the Loony Bin.
             The boys had never been a band of brothers, the kind of friends who cut their index fingers and traded blood.  In the beginning, they were just a bunch of kids who rode the same school bus to and from Twenty-nine Palms El.  What had brought them together was the Club.  And the Club brought Oliver. 
              It was time for them to meet.  It would be tougher without Paul. Paul was the smartest. But Paul had gone Loony Tunes again, leaving it to Jeremy.
              Time to cut fingers and share blood. Time to kill the beast.  Time to make a plan.

Maybe I will finish this.  I promised the real person I call

Jeremy that I would write it.


Saturday, April 27, 2013

Thank you, Marek Hlasko!

Pop psychology was a big item in 1974, the year that I conceived my son Michael. There were several highly publicized beliefs circulating, some bizarre and some only mildly weird.  Talking to  houseplants was a 'must do' . Another was reading aloud to a fetus starting at the 9th week after gestation.  Fortunately there was no such timetable for the Dieffenbachia,  which in my care seldom lasted that long. For a reason I do not recall, I began reading to the little quiver in my belly, and I chose a book given to me in college that I had misplaced before I finished and had located in a stationery box with a pile of letters from my mother telling me how to live my life. It was The Eighth Day of the Week by Poland's angry young man of the late 50's Marek Hlasko.  It is best classified as a novella  and I am a fast reader, so I read it once for overview, once for appreciation, and a final time, for love. Thirty-two years later Michael called me from Malta where he was living to tell me about his newest literary discovery--something written by an incredibly talented angry Polish expatriate writer who died young. "The Eighth Day of the Week," I said.

This morning  Michael sent me the cover of his fourth book, this one not yet in bookstores or on the web.  It is called The Mischief of Robert Kyd, and yes, the cover photo is indeed  taken from a playbill for This Sporting Life, with Richard Harris, and yes, he paid a bundle to license it.  i have read the manuscript  and I find a touch of Marek Hlasko in its style.  Like Hlasko, Michael Marsh is an expatriate, but not quite the iconoclast that Hlasko came to be, and not as angry because his lovely  wife Dr. Christina Bocklisch will not permit it.   Appreciating  angry Eastern European writers is not the only link between us. We both love single malt from the River Spey, the road to Amboy Crater (if you've heard of it, you have been seriously lost in the Mohave on the way back from Las Vegas at least once in your life ) and the film artistry of Stanley Kubrick. And he has given me a hunger for the works of the generation of activist eastern European writers like Bohumil Hrabel (Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age) whose imagery is poetry in prose. 
 Why do I share this?  Because I am looking back at life now that I am way too old to call myself middle-aged and paying more attention to the books I skimmed when Michael was young - the works of Joseph Campbell come to mind.  I am also foregoing the sin of throwing live things into pots of boiling water because now when I listen I can hear them scream.  And when I received a lovely basket of houseplants from my daughter Jolie and her family for my 74th birthday Wednesday,  I rushed to put them somewhere  near the shower so I could sing to them. But remembering what my singing voice is like (I am now too profoundly deaf to suffer) I moved them to my little stereo system in the library and bombarded them with MacArthur Park from my digitally remastered CD  A Tramp Shining, sung of course by Richard Harris.  And while I was sitting there  I realized that I no longer had a copy of Eighth Day of the Week.  I have no unborn children as my captive audience, but my malamutes will humor me and let me read.  And from a used bookseller,  I have received the comforting email message, 'Your order is acknowledge and the book is on its way.'
What did Michael give me for my birthday? -- The Yale Press edition of The Richard Burton Diaries edited by Chris Williams.  But when Eighth Day arrives next week, I shall put Richard and Liz aside long enough to raise a glass and turn a page in tribute to Marek Hlasko, Bohumil Hrabel, Yael Dayan (Envy the Frightened) David Brin (The Postman, Darwin's Radio)  and the other writers of the last half of the 20th Century who were searching for the elusive promise of a better world.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Forget that there be dragons out there, mates. Beware of Trolls

I always thought trolls lived under bridges.  That may well be true in fantasy, but not in historical fiction,  historical romance, nor in the mystery thriller genre. They have not hit Sci-Fi yet because they do not understand how to digest it well enough to eat it.

The trolls who threaten our habitat live on Amazon and Goodreads.  They are the folks who read with a red pencil in one hand while they turn pages with the other, careful not to read  for enjoyment,enticing storyline or character development.  These trolls are the undercover word police. They are clones of that First Grade Teacher who loved to knock an A student out of the Spelling Bee because they could not spell disestablishmentarianism or Ulysses. You cannot see them before they strike, but once you have been assaulted, you can unmask  the creature for what he or she is by clicking on his/her (more often a 'her' I have discovered) cybername and you will find that your suspected troll has many other victims besides yourself, but the weapon is the same, the one star rating on Goodreads without a review to explain it, or for the more ambitious troll, an actual review on Goodreads of Amazon that is 1) snide;  2) brutal and  3) usually illustrated by examples of  isolated spelling errors designed to make the writer appear to be an idiot.  As one of my reviewers comments, by pointing out errors that "anyone with half a brain can put aside."

And what is the motive?  Trolls are out to kill Indie Writers. Why? Because they can.  Do you think the traditional publishing houses give a whit if one of their offerings from a best selling writer has spelling errors  and an occasional lapse in subject-verb agreement?  I know two very successful traditionally published writers who have told me that their own complaints to their publsher concerning errors in cover content and interior copy editing went unheeded, and they were told to forget about it and get busy with the next book, to paraphrase Spock, Go Forth and Prosper, or more accurately, Go Forth and Let Us Prosper.

 During the past two years  I have downloaded  647 books to my Kindle library and read all but 13 of them. I find errors in the works of some of my favorite writers, and I do not diss them for an occasional lapse.  When I read another Indie with talent who needs a copy editor or proof reader, or to do a better job of checking facts, I take the time to track him down and share my comments privately. Trolls do not do that.  It diminishes their food supply.

Defending against Trolls is a challenge.The safe way is to avoid using the pathway that goes under the  bridge as a shortcut-- in the language of an Indie, that means stomping out the copy errors, because the only way to kill a troll is to starve it to death.   That may or may not involve hiring an editor.  The best advice I have been given in that area is use an editor but only if you can afford a good one with experience in your genre, references to offer  and a willingness to edit a small sample of your work for free.  Also, if what you need is a proofreader, that is what you should be hiring, not someone with the higher level of expertise of a book doctor.  And there is another message in this little bit of  blogging--if the Trolls can find morsels to devour in your copy, so can you.  

BeforeI decide how best to proceed with my current work in progress. I am going to emulate a Troll. First I am going to read it just as always.  I let my manuscsript sit for 2 weeks; then I read it for content. This is when I prepare to copy edit, which for me is the easy part. This is the time to freeze dry my darlings. ( I never kill them, I just  store them in a file I label 'cryogenics').  Then I spell check and  grammar check, with the caveat that MS Word does not know anything about Marie Stuart's Scotland and will prompt me to fix things that are not broken and overlook what is. After two successive runs in which MSWord thinks I am error free, I make sure that  my auto-correct function is disabled, and I do a line edit.  And I do a line edit.  And I do a line edit.  But because I know there are hungry Trolls awaiting, this time I will wait a week and do a line edit. Then I plan to wait another week, read my final draft from Prologue to Author's notes, and  make decisions about editors.  Because I have a few avid fans who are pressing  me for the next offering in my saga, I may send out some advanaced copies, but I am not going to rush to print.  It's not as if I do not have two other projects to fill the downtime--family first, and second -- there is another book waiting.

Friday, April 19, 2013


I confess. I, Linda Root, conspired with James Douglas, Earl of Morton, Regent of Scotland,  my quintessential villain to kill off Helen Leslie, widow of James Kirkcaldy, the knight Sir William Kirkcaldy's younger brother.  Most histories that bother to mention her at all blame her murder on the Kirkcaldy brothers, but they did not get it right.  No less an authority than the very authoritarian Reformer Knox himself presents evidence that the lady survived the death of the Kirkcaldy brothers and continued to procreate for at least three years after Kirkcaldy's head was put on display above the Portcullis Gate of Edinburgh Castle which Kirkcaldy loved so much. 

Naughty Helen( by Russ Root)


I first met  Lady Helen when researching the life of Kirkcaldy of Grange.  That in and of itself presents a challenge, for most of the records pertaining to the Kirkcaldy family were stored within the knight’s offices in Edinburgh Castle during the Lange Siege of 1573, but according to my research, when the castle fell, the vindictive Regent Morton had them destroyed, as if eradicating the documents would erase the man.  Because Kirkcaldy was a voracious letter writer, a treasure trove of correspondence was forever lost, except for the letters generated by him, some of which have surfaced in private collections and made their way into the histories of the time. There also existed a popular contemporary reporter of Kirkcaldy’s exploits, and that is Sir James Melville of Halihill, Kirkcaldy’s uncle, who kept journals and wrote memoirs in which Kirkcaldy figures prominently.  Melville, however, was known to embellish the record.  
. There are two acknowledged two truths about Sir James Melville.  First, he was a novelist at heart and a bit of a prevaricator, and second, he was Kirkcaldy’s uncle, his mother Janet Melville of Raith’s very much younger brother, and his accounts are more than a little skewed.  Much like the rumor that is passed from ear to ear around the dinner table, Melville’s highly biased account of his illustrious relative made its way into the popular histories of two of the knight’s biographers, James Barbe and John Grant.  Neither of the gentlemen looked past Melville in their reports of the perfidious antics and precipitous demise of Lady Helen. 
             A reader relying on Melville, Grant and Barbe will believe that after Helen orchestrated the betrayal of her husband James Kirkcaldy, he  somehow escaped Morton's dungeons at Dalkeith long enough to strangle Lady Helen with her shawl, the kind of literary justice that novelists and readers love, and no wonder it endures as the popular version of the perfidious lady’s end.  However, the truth of the matter is something entirely different, and the source of the more likely story is none other than John Knox and his editor.  Knox, it seems, had an enduring friendship with Helen Leslie due to kindnesses rendered to Knox’s first wife when she was dying, which among other things demonstrates that my mother was right when she taught me the adage, "there is a little bit of good in the worst of us, and a little bit of bad in the best of us.'  According to footnotes with citations in his history of the Reformation, lady Helen had distinguished herself with Knox as 'the Gudewife Barroun'  during her marriage to Knox’s friend John Barroun, an important Edinburgh official. According to the footnotes, after her second husband James Kirkcaldy’s execution, she married a third time to a parson named Seton and gave birth to two more daughters, dying in approximately 1576.  The fact that  Knox's angelic Helen is the same Helen Leslie who had been the regent Morton’s mistress and the betrayer of  Kirkcaldy brother is confirmed by reference to her will in which she names her son William Kirkcaldy as her surviving heir.   There is nothing in the literature to rehabilitate her character or prove her innocent of selling out her husband, but Knox’s notes  certainly acquit either of the Kirkcaldy brothers of her murder, since she outlived them both and continued to procreate. As an amateur  historian, I must wonder why Melville’s account has been so easily adopted and passed along, when the truth is  readily available. However, as a writer of historical fiction, l like Helen best when she is at her most evil, which suits my persona as a fiction writer and makes her outrageously delicious to kill.

 In Last Knight at page 710, Kirkcaldy does his best to kill his sister-in-law, but he realizes that much of what she has become is due  to his rejection of  her when she was an adolescent living with his family. Chivalry overtakes his need for revenge in the following excerpt, which takes place shortly after Kirkcaldy learns that Helen is not only responsible for his brother's capture but also for the death of  Mariel Fraser, the midwife who had profoundly touched his heart. The incident with the willow switch is in retaliation for an injury she inflicted on her little son when he tried to save his nanny from being dragged away by Morton's soldiers. The excerpt is edited for sensitive and young readers to remove the one word we inherited from the Scots that most editors deem too hot to handle.

He made it to Rossend long before sunrise, just as he had planned. Rossend was still his, and like all of his properties, he knew its every secret.  He had negotiated the hidden passage that Chatelard once used to reach the queen’s bedchamber, and he correctly guessed Helen would have selected the elegantly furnished room for herself.
            Chatelard’s secret passageway opened into a cabinet in the gallery outside Helen’s room.  He did not linger.  He boldly marched to Helen’s chamber, a man on a mission. He felt no compulsion to behave discretely. He had already bribed the garrison outside.  He would have killed them had they balked.  He saw no need to make a secret of his presence. As soon as the lady’s body was discovered, all of Fifeshire would know who had done the evil deed. He disliked assassinations and considered them cowardly, but some wrongs cried out for vengeance..

            He spotted a fine knitted scarf tossed upon a chair. Good, he thought. He would not need his belt.

            Helen was in her curtained bed, imitating the sleep of the innocent. Although she was entering her fifth decade, she was still a beautiful woman.

            She had been more than forty when she finally married Jamie. The children came soon, one within a year of the other.  Kirkcaldy wondered whose they were.  Thank God that neither was his.

            He must have given out an audible sigh, because the lady stirred.

            “Who’s there?”

            “He who is your worst fear.”

            “Kirkcaldy” she whispered.

            He did not respond.

            She propped herself up on her elbows.

            “To my bedchamber at last!  I must have lit a candle to the right saint.”

 The woman was amoral. Yet the fact that she was not cowed strangely pleased him.

            “Why, Helen?  How could you do this?  The man loves you.”

            “Morton asked me the same question,” she said. “He seemed puzzled when I told him that it had nothing to do with Jack.  It is all about you, Kirkcaldy. But then you always knew that. You were the firstborn.  Perhaps if your father had promised me to you, none of this would have happened. But no.”  She was quiet for a moment and turned her head away.  Kirkcaldy thought he saw a tear forming. ...“You accursed people took my pride from me and used my money when pride and wealth were my only weapons, and now I am taking from you that which you cherish most.” 

He wondered if she was referring to his brother’s life or the purloined gold he needed to save his castle. He was about to forgo strangling her with her scarf and had withdrawn his sgian to strike a fatal blow. Afterwards he was never certain if it had been Helen’s next words or the noise from behind that stopped him. 

Surely the whimpering child in the doorway was a part of it, a wee lad with a welt across his cheek.  The Kirkcaldy heir. His heir.

            “Do it, Kirkcaldy,” she taunted.

            “Unca Willy?”

            “Aye, it is your Unca Willy, here to chase the Bogle away and to kiss you goodnight.”   He hid the dagger in the folds of his garments and hoisted the boy onto his shoulder.  Then he turned to Helen.

            “You have not taken that which I value most, Helen, and you will not succeed tonight where you have failed in the past.”  His voice and his demeanor had mellowed. His nephew was already half asleep. He gently lowered him to the floor, tousled his hair and swatted him off to his room. :

            “I’ll be tucking you into your bed before I leave,” he promised.   

            He found a willow in a vase, and with thumb and forefinger, he stripped it of its fuzzy blooms. Then he made a single swipe at Helen’s cheek, striking her just below her eye.  She made no effort to ward it off.

            “You think you are the world’s great knight, Kirkcaldy, but you are mistaken.”

            “I am perhaps the world’s last knight, but surely not its greatest. But you, Helen, are most assuredly the world’s greatest c---. Both of us are past our prime. Perhaps I should fall upon my sword and you should retire to a nunnery.”

            He stomped out of the room and gathered up the children. He could not take them back to the Maiden Castle, so he delivered them to one of the Melville farms where his brothers David and Robert were living.

            “Hide them”, he said, after sharing the news ofwhat had happened to Jack.

 “Should Helen find some future use for them, she might want them back.”   
 When he rode off into the predawn fog, his brothers gave a muffled battle cry. “A Kirkcaldy,” they called, and he returned the battle cry of their clan.

            He never heard it raised again.  

And in Midwife's Secret at page 174,  Helen finally meets her end. And  to make it easy on my conscience, the very naughty Helen of Last Knight becomes pure evil in the pages of Midwife's Secret, to the  point that I actually enjoyed killing her off.  Since the earl of Morton was so good at killing people, I had him do it. 

The midwife was not the last expendable woman in the saga.

After their executions, the Kirkcaldy brothers took on a new mystique.  Soon Kirkcaldy had joined the ranks of legendary Scottish heroes of the likes of Wallace and the Bruce. The people of Edinburgh were again in the knight’s thrall, anxious to avenge him, and too fickle for Morton to risk setting them off by publicly lifting the skirts of Jack Kirkcaldy’s widow.  After Helen betrayed her husband and his brother, and the Grange’s head went on display above the castle gate, she ceased to have a value worth the peril she presented. Morton began to plan her death.  He was in no particular hurry.  Without a husband to accommodate her, her sexual appetite was both voracious and unsatiated, and besides, he had yet to groom a replacement.

 To keep Helen satisfied, Morton let her remain living in Rossend after her husband’s execution, and when that still did not appease her and she made increasing demands on his time, he found her a preacher for a husband, assuming that would calm her down. He vowed to postpone his plan to poison her for as long as she behaved herself.  After Kirkcaldy’s death, Morton was at the pinnacle of his power, and at the time, Helen was too much of a survivor to complain.  She was pregnant with Morton’s child and needed a husband in a hurry.  
The bridegroom James Seton hardly noticed. He was too busy courting favor with the Council of the Kirk to question the stage of Helen’s pregnancy or how she occupied herself during his absences.  The preacher continued his habit of sleeping on a bench in a pew at his country kirk on weekends so he could draft his Sunday sermons without the distractions of his wife, and Morton renewed his nocturnal excursions to Rossend Castle. He abandoned any plan to rid himself of Helen permanently until her child was born. Should it be a male, he would have Knox’s successor Craig annul her recent marriage and would thereafter acknowledge the child as his.  As if he had a curse hanging over him, all of the children born to his several mistresses had been daughters.  As things stood, his dying wife’s nephew was his only heir.  A son would be worth the scandal of a marriage to the widow of the man he had butchered three years earlier. A simple well placed pillow would take care of his bed-ridden wife.

Helen’s supposed premature delivery of a daughter weighing over half a troy stone raised eyebrows in some quarters, and its sex caused Morton to sulk, but the cuckolded preacher wrote a lengthy sermon lauding the virtues of a gudewife such as Helen. However, two daughters later, the older of which was surely his, it was time for Motion to sever his link to Helen Leslie.  His regency was under attack.

Challenged by the earls of Atholl and Argyll, and losing his control over the pubescent king, Morton had no energies to spare for Helen, who was dissatisfied with the role of a parson’s wife.  With his wife long dead, he had run out of excuses. After the birth of a second daughter, Helen had ceased her menses. There would be no stallion from this particular brood mare.

Morton was canny enough to know that Helen would not go quietly to pasture. He fooled her into thinking that the surplus poison he had acquired from the Englishman Walsingham to poison the Earl of Atholl was set aside for use on the preacher. He helped her hide it in a cabinet in her bedchamber telling her that she would administer it when he indicated the time was right.

  Then one evening after a particularly gratifying demonstration of her repertoire of depravities, he poured her a generous mug of claret which he embellished with the contents of the vile. He had always been good at sleight-of-hand. He was within her when she began to convulse.
Morton’s varlet Binney, who as usual knew the plan, had been waiting in an alcove outside Helen’s bedchamber. He quickly emerged and placed a pillow over Helen’s face to muffle the sounds of her death throes. After it was over, Morton instructed Binney to deal with the corpse in whatever manner pleased him most, but to clean up the evidence of his expended fluids and leave the lady in an uncommon angelic repose.  Then Morton rode off to his lair at Dalkeith, pondering which of his new chambermaids would be the best to train in the techniques he had learned from Helen.  

At her heartbroken husband’s request, Morton arranged a lavish funeral for the murdered mistress in the Kirk of Saint Giles where Knox had preached.  He and Binney placed an elegant wreath on her casket, lingering tearfully at the open grave sharing their last ménage e’trois. 

And thus, the girl who had started it all by running her bare foot up Kirkcaldy's leg at the dinner table  when she was an adolescent heiress living in the Kirkcaldy manor house at  Halyards at the beginning of my second novel The Last Knight and the Queen of Scots meets her bitter end in The Midwife's Secret - the Mystery of the Hidden Princess.  I had written her into the prologue of the fourth book of the Queen of Scot's Suite, my current work-in-progress, but  today I edited her out of it.  Better she rest in peace. 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Today's offering is an except from the novel THE LAST KNIGHT and the Queen of Scots, from the Chapter "Two Marguerites".  The Knight of Grange has been exiled from Scotland by Marie de Guise and has distinguished himself as a soldier and a gentleman at the Valois court.  He has abandoned his efforts to reconcile with his estranged Scottish wife Margaret Learmonth,  who has failed to respond to his many letters.  Then Margaret suddenly appears in Paris. This is one of my favorite parts of what to date has been the least read of my books in the Queen of Scots Suite.

      For years afterward, he was haunted by the memory of Margot framed in the doorway of the darkened annex to the armory where she had left him less than an hour before. The first thing he saw was the radiance of her smile.  She carried a reed basket that swayed under its weight, giving off the aroma of cheeses and fresh-baked bread.
`“Kirkcaldy, we must hurry or we will miss the sunset!” she called as she took three steps into the room before her eyes adjusted to the dark and froze. Tears came to him in an instant.  Hers took longer. Margaret stood beside him. She moved yet closer, her hand grasping his forearm, a proprietary gesture.  Then came the introductions that were at best superfluous
      .“Madame, this is Lady Margaret Learmonth.  My wife,” he added awkwardly.  Then he spoke words directed to Meg, but his eyes never left Margot.
       “Meg, this is Princess Marguerite, Duchess of Berry, and sister of the King.” He was aware of the nodding of his wife’s head, but no words were spoken by either of the women. Margot’s smile had faded to an expression of quizzical disbelief.  She did not hold it long, for she was a Valois princess, namesake of Marguerite of Angouleme, and pride was inbred. Quietly she placed the basket on the floor.
      “Well, I will leave you two alone to reacquaint yourselves,” she said as she spun in her riding boots and left the room.  Margaret released his arm and retreated to the bench where she had deposited her gloves and satchel, deflating like a child’s balloon.
      “I should have written,” was the best she could offer.
       It was not his wife’s feelings that tortured Will. Joy had turned its back on him when Margot left. He would have done anything to move time backwards to the day when Knox suggested that he put his unresponsive wife aside.  Had it not been for his little daughter, he would have done so.
      “I should not have let this happen,” he said, more for his benefit than for hers. Margaret had regained some of her natural diffidence.
      “You always did aim high, Will,” she said.
      “Would you have preferred me to have directed my attentions to a laundress or one of the scullery maids?”
      “It would be easier if you had.”
`     Kirkcaldy did not argue the point. After minutes of strained silence, he began to pace back and forth, befuddled as to what to do next.  Margaret gathered her few things and walked towards the door, stooping to inspect the basket. 
      “The very best cheeses and a fine bottle of wine. The bread is still warm,” she said as she bent to touch it.  “A lover’s repast,” she added almost as if an afterthought.
      “Leave it where it is, Meg.”
      “It should not go to waste.  We could take it to your Uncle James’s lodgings where I have arranged to stay.”
      He was more than annoyed by the insensitivity of her frugality and her indifference to the situation.  That she had somehow involved James Melville in the debacle angered him even more. The notorious gossip Melville, who knew everything about everyone, should have warned him. His mother should have warned him.
      “Leave it,” he repeated.  “It is already wasted,” he added, unable to discipline his tongue. She pushed past him and marched outside into the February chill
      “It is not I who should be groveling, Will Kirkcaldy.  You are the one who has sinned.”
      He grabbed her hand and pulled her back inside the room.  There was nothing gentle in the gesture.  Once inside, he took her by the shoulders and held her firmly at arm’s length. She stuck her Learmonth chin out and looked him in the eyes, her own eyes communicating a defiance that needed no words.  What he saw reminded him of her stern Papist mother, whom he had never really liked.
      “Madame, I will not do you the dishonor of leaving you to your own devices, but neither will I apologize for seeking warmth and companionship from someone who filled the void created by your silence and neglect.”
      “What I saw flash between the two of you went far beyond warmth and companionship.  I am no fool.”  She sunk to the floor, and much to his surprise, she began to tremble.
      “This is not the place for you to do your weeping, Margaret. You’ll soil your gown.”   His ingrained sense of chivalry invaded him, and he extended his hand to help her to her feet.  “We will go to Melville’s lodging and sort this out,” he said, dragging her from the room.  In the distance he saw Margot riding astraddle at a dangerous clip, jumping the hedges as if it she were in a tournament.  There was absolutely nothing he could do to bring her back. 
      He recalled Montmorency’s words of the year before. The heir to a lairdship in impoverished Scotland was not a match for a French princess, no matter how each of them had joked of it. But both of them had faced the bittersweet inevitability of a tearful parting, not the unanticipated appearance of an estranged wife.
      When they arrived at Melville’s lodging in the Scottish quarter, he was not at home.  James had made the avoidance of unpleasantness an art form.  His housekeeper escorted them to one of the spare bedchambers on the second floor, where Kirkcaldy saw that Margaret’s baggage had already been deposited, her chest opened and partially unpacked.
       “I take it you intend to park yourself here,” he chided. She walked to the sea chest and began refolding her belongings, as if operating on rote.  She did not turn to face him, and with her back turned, he could hardly hear her words.
       “You should have put me aside, Will.  It would have been better for both of us.  There are aplenty protestant-leaning priests who follow Knox in Scotland now.  You would have been able to persuade one of them that our marriage was a sham to protect the legitimacy of our child—that there never was a hand fasting.” 
      When he approached her, there was a solitary tear rinsing the travel dust from her cheek.
       “I would never do that to my daughter,” he said. There was no compassion for Margaret included in his declaration.  He towered over her and with his closed right fist, tilted her head upward, forcing her to look him in the eye.
       “Why are you here, Meg?”  His demeanor announced that this was not a question born of curiosity.  It was an interrogatory.  “Why now?”
      She did not shirk away.  Her dark eyes challenged him, and while she spoke, they never drifted from his own.
      “I am in France to escort my mother to the convent of Saint Pierre les Dames in Reims.  It has been her lifelong dream to see the cathedral there and after my father perished at Pinkie, her desire was to settle in the convent.  The Dowager and her brothers have arranged it with their sister Renee, who is the abbess.  But that is not really your question, is it, Sir?  I am in Paris because your mother insisted that I come here, to explain my estrangement to your face.  On my own, I would have endured my agony without any help from you, but I owed it to your mother to do what she had asked of me.  I did not know that you loved this woman.”
      “The woman you mentioned with such distain is the Princess Royale,” he scolded.
      “From where I stand, Sir, it makes little difference who she is.”
      Kirkcaldy realized that he was the focus of a family conspiracy, betrayed by the one person he trusted beyond all others.  He was not surprised that the Guise had instigated Meg’s unfortunate visit. What vexed him most was the fact that they had engaged his mother as an accomplice. 
      “Why would my mother sponsor such a pathetic ploy?” he asked. 
      “Oh, make no mistake, Sir.  I have not turned your mother away from you, nor made her any different than she always has been.  She is still your champion, William.  And she is still devoted to her principles of forthrightness and honesty.  But she knew that I had never shared my anguish with you, Sir, and she could not forgive that in a wife.  She has never deceived the laird, as well you know.  For that reason, she urged me to share the truth with you, so you would know that my silence was not because of contempt of you, but because of my failure as a proper wife.”
       Kirkcaldy withdrew his fist from her chin.
      “Let’s have it, Meg. What is it that would cause a daughter of the laird of Dairsie to estrange herself from her husband?  Was it popery that came between us?” 
      He gestured to the bench near the fire and while she composed herself, he sought some brandy.  She took a sip and put her glass aside, then dropped her hands into the lap.  She no longer locked upon his gaze.
      “When little Janet was born, I remained in Dairsie for my laying-in.  My old room became a birth chamber.  I chose Dairsie because I felt the need of a priest and I knew that your mother would suffer a crisis of her conscience were I to bring one into her house.  I was attended at the birthing by my brother Patrick’s wife, who brought a midwife from the village.  When the pains began, I felt I was going to die, but I believed they were natural to the condition. 
On the dawn of the third day, they brought nausea and unconsciousness, but when I was awake, I noticed strained whispering between my sister-in-law and the midwife.  The pains were intense, but I judged that no bairn was coming with them. Although they did not consult with me, they sent a servant to bring the barber from the village, a man who had in the past performed births in the manner of Caesar’s on the corpses of women whose wombs could not expel their bairn.
  I tried to raise my head to speak to them, to ask for a priest, but each time I did so, I fell into a swoon.
 Sometime around the noonday, my frail mother escorted a priest into the chamber, followed by the barber.  While the priest was administering the rites, I saw the barber shooing the midwife away from the foot of the bed.  There came a pain so intense that I cannot describe it to you, and I was aware of something invading me before I lapsed into an infinite white glow that I believe is heaven.  Then the darkness came, and in my belief, I passed from his life to the next. 
      “…What happened in the room while I was with the angels was told to me by my mother, who had had knelt near the foot of the bed in mourning of my passing. The barber, who had pulled back the birthing sheets that had twisted around my bloody legs, whispered something to the midwife, then took his hand and shoved it inside me, and according to the report, grabbed our daughter, placing his finger in the infant’s tiny mouth, as he rotated the child’s shoulders within the womb as gently as he could until the head was down and she was facing properly.  When my unconscious body began to spasm, he pushed upon my belly, and expelled the child’s head.  He quickly cut away a wider opening, and the bairn came into the world without the need of a Caesarian birth from which no Scotswoman has been known to survive.  However, much blood came along with it, and afterward, tissue that was not afterbirth.  He and the midwife did what they could to patch me up.  My sister-in-law later said that she believed a part of my womb had been expelled with the afterbirth, but the barber repositioned it into my insides as best he could.  He also sewed the incision he had made to widen the birth canal, and cleansed the wound.  Although he did his best, there was still much bleeding, and little expectation that I would live.
       “… I lay in a coma for two days, and even when I awakened, my mother believed I would only live long enough to see our daughter, and would bleed to death soon after.  By then, Lady Janet had arrived.  I saw her kiss the ring of the priest and hand him a purse of coin.  She directed my mother and the women to rest, and she stayed beside me until I was well enough to take some broth flavored with garlic and thyme, and to keep it down. 
She rubbed my body with an herbal oil and rubbed garlic on my wounds.  She changed my dressings as soon as they were soiled and no one was allowed to touch me without washing.  She would not allow me to raise my head without help, and forbade me to sit up.
 She massaged my legs and arms, and kept me clean of the blood.  Often she would read to me, sometimes in Scots and sometimes in French. 
She told me stories. Three times each day she had the wet nurse bring Janet to my side, but she would not let me nurse the child until three days had passed. Then she put Janet briefly to my own breast, because she believed it would help me heal.  At first when she did so, I would feel a gush of warm blood, but as the days passed, it subsided. It was weeks later when she and my brother helped me to my feet, and miraculously, there was no bleeding….
“…At the end of the month, your mother returned to the Halyards, but before she left, she and my poor mother converged upon my bedside and together they told me that I would bear no further children. On that day I willed myself to die. Only the presence of our child kept me from finding a sgian dubh and ending my life. That is why I could not write to you. I could not bear to tell you that I could not provide you with an heir.  I was certain that some sin of mine had brought this upon us. I did not wish to taint little Janet or let her suffer from my morose, so I forced my brother to send her to Halyards, to your mother.
“When my father died and Patrick became laird of Dairsie, I joined our daughter at your parents’ manor house, but whenever I saw her, I began to cry.  I was not fit for mothering, and I was not to be allowed a second chance. You would never have heard this story had your mother not insisted that I tell it to you myself.  She and your father wanted me to tell you when you were in Haddington, but I could not find the courage, and I made both of them promise not to reveal any of this to you.  I thought it better than you believe yourself saddled with an uncaring, hateful wife, bitter from the separation that followed the fall of Saint Andrews.  Part of me hoped you would find a way to end our marriage, to put me aside and find a healthy woman to give you sons.  John Knox would have helped you with a divorce. But Lady Janet insisted that should you make that choice, you needed to do it with full knowledge of why I had rejected you.” 
      Then, for the first time during her sad narrative, she began to sob.
      … “I have every one of your letters tied together with little green ribbons that I wore in my hair on the day of our hand fasting.  I am saving them for Janet when she is old enough to read them.  Your poetry I know by heart. I often sing the verses to Janet as she sleeps.”
      Kirkcaldy drew her into his arms and held her while she wept. It was the least that he could do.