At half-past midnight, newly licensed attorney Jake Wolfe lay in bed staring at the ceiling and
waiting for orders.
Orders to kill.
He lay on top of the covers, fully dressed except for his boots, ready to go at a moment’s notice.
Beneath him, he felt his sixtyfoot power yacht, the Far Niente, rock gently on the water, where it
was berthed at his boat slip.
In the stillness, he listened as small waves lapped at the hull.
The boat creaked in a familiar way, the rigging from a nearby sailboat flapped in the breeze, and
a passing seagull called to another. He knew every sound of the boat, as if she was an old
friend with her own personality.
Closing his eyes, he wondered how it was possible that he’d become an assassin. After serving
four years in the Marines and later doing secret black ops missions for the CIA’s Special
Activities Division, he’d received an honorable discharge at his end of active service. He’d come
home and studied law online, had passed the bar exam, and had started a solo law practice.
The fighting should all be behind him now, but Uncle Sam had come calling again, in need of a
patriot to help protect the homeland.
His girlfriend, Sarah Chance, should be in bed with him. But she’d accidentally witnessed Jake
assassinate three terrorists, and now she was afraid to spend the night.
Jake cursed and thought about the liquor cabinet in the galley. A few drinks of Redbreast Irish
whiskey could help him forget about life and get some sleep. It was only natural if you had Irish
blood in your veins.
No, not tonight. He shook his head and pushed that temptation out of his mind. He had to stay
A light rain began to patter quietly against the boat. The buzzing of his encrypted black phone
on the nightstand interrupted his thoughts.
Jake noticed his adopted war dog, Cody, wake up from where he’d been sleeping on the bed.
The dog looked at him with wise brown eyes, quirking one eyebrow. Jake smiled at his faithful
friend. Cody was a Golden Lab—a yellow Labrador retriever and Golden Retriever mix—with
short, wavy hair.
“At ease, Marine,” Jake said, and scratched Cody behind his ears.
Sitting up, Jake grabbed the phone. It was a call from Shannon McKay. He thumbed the answer
“We have a situation,” McKay said. “The one I warned you about.”
She spoke in a commanding voice, always serious and professional. In their working
relationship she was the starched shirt and he was the loose cannon.
Jake saw her image on an encrypted program similar to Skype or FaceTime. She was wearing
a charcoal-gray suit jacket over a white blouse, the telltale bulge of a pistol in a shoulder holster
under her left arm. Staring directly at the camera with a nononsense gaze, she projected the
image of a powerful, capable, and dangerous person—someone who could give an order and
you’d be dead, or soon wish you were.
Jake made light of the deadly situation with a dark humor they both shared. “I’ve got pants on
and I’m about to drink some strong coffee.”
“So far, so good, but no whiskey in the coffee; I need you alert.”
Jake smiled ruefully. She knew him too well. They shared a complicated history, but they’d
earned each other’s trust and respect, although they still traded barbs and challenges.
“The mission?” Jake asked as he walked to the galley with Cody following. He knew missions
were often kept secret until the last minute, to protect operations security.
“A high value target I’ve been tracking. He’s a foreign banking executive who secretly helps
terrorists launder their opium money and buy assault rifles and rocket launchers from arms
dealers. Those weapons are fired at our troops, and some of them are smuggled into the U.S.
and sold to criminal gangs.”
Opening the sliding door, Jake let Cody out onto the aft deck to do his business on a section of
artificial grass. “Is this related to the drug gang I fought with recently?”
“Correct. You shut them down, but this guy was their money man.”
“Still conducting business as usual?”
“Yes. Recently, in Los Angeles, a gang of criminals robbed a bank while wearing body armor
and carrying AKs sold through his pipeline. They injured several LEOs and one police officer
died who had recently returned to duty after her maternity leave.”
Jake cursed and thought about when he’d served overseas as a military dog handler. Some of
his best friends had been killed by AK-47s. And his good friend Stuart, Cody’s former handler,
made it home alive but had died of a heroin overdose. The deaths of his friends had cut deep
wounds in his soul. “This dirtbag gets rich by arming terrorists and cop killers?”
McKay pursed her lips. “He also helped fund the overseas terrorist cell that was beheading
women who refused to be sex slaves.”
“The men I terminated.”
“The very same.”
“Was he aware of the beheadings?”
“He knew exactly who he was aiding and abetting. Now, he’s funding a shipment of Stingers
that are on their way to the United States.”
Jake almost cringed thinking about the FIM-92 Stinger, a shoulder-launched heat-seeking
missile. “We can’t let those weapons fall into the wrong hands.”
“Agreed. One of the Stingers from a shipment to Europe was used to shoot down an airliner
over the Baltic Sea. Another supply is now on its way to California. We need to put a stop to
that. You could help us do so tonight if you’re willing to serve your country again and shut down
the money supply.”
Jake felt his sense of duty weighing on his shoulders. “Did you say the banker is designated as
a high-value target?”
“Yes. My orders are to eliminate this HVT from the chessboard.”
“I’m willing, but why me? You must have plenty of wild-eyed former Navy SEALs, Army Special
Forces, and infantry Marine veterans who’d love to kick ass.”
“Three reasons. First, you agreed to twelve missions and this is one of them. Second, you’re
closest to his location. Third, this man funded the reward money when terrorists put a bounty on
you and Duke.”
Duke. Jake was quiet for a moment, taking a deep breath and letting it out. When he spoke, his
voice was low and menacing.
“He’s the dirtbag who paid them to kill my dog when we were deployed?”
She nodded. “Yes. The reward was twenty thousand U.S. dollars for any war dog’s tattooed
Jake’s temper flared and he began pacing back and forth, clenching his right hand into a fist,
righteous anger rising to the surface. “Who is he? Where is he?”
“I’m sorry to bring up painful memories, but I thought you’d want to be the one who dealt with
this … person.”
“Show me his face and location. I’ll go there right now and break his neck with my bare hands.”
The Heart Collector Auckland Steampunk Book 1 by Barbara Russell Genre: Steampunk, Romantic Suspense
Auckland, 1884 The Supernaturals are frightened. Despite being able to do extraordinary things like teleporting or lighting a fire with a stare, a serial killer, the Heart Collector, is slaughtering them. He rips their chests open and removes their hearts. While other aristocratic, nineteen-year- old girls spend time dancing, Isabel trains hard to become an MI7 agent—Military Intelligence Seventh Division, a crime squad run by Supernaturals. The Heart Collector murdered her best friend, and enrolling at MI7 is the best way to help catch the killer. Isabel senses other people’s feelings as if they were her owns. But MI7’s leader is too worried about Isabel’s safety to let her join the team. Eager to prove that her power is valuable, Isabel volunteers to meet Murk, a dangerous Supernatural man who can turn himself invisible. MI7 desperately tried to recruit him and failed. She believes that her power is enough to convince Murk to become an MI7’s agent and help apprehend the Heart Collector. If he wants to attack her, his feelings will broadcast his intention, and she’ll be ready. What Isabel isn’t ready for is to fall in love with the man who will collect her heart. Goodreads * Amazon
I’m an entomologist and a soil biologist, which is a fancy way to say that I dig in the dirt, looking for bugs. Nature and books have always been my passion. I was a kid when I read The Lord Of The Ring and fell in love with fantasy novels. When I discovered cosy mystery and crime novel, I fell in love with Hercules Poirot and Sherlock Holmes. Then I grew up and . . . Nah, I’m joking. I didn’t grow up. Don’t grow up, folks! It’s a trap. PS I hate gardening. There, I said it. Sorry fellow Kiwis. Website * Facebook * Twitter * Amazon * Goodreads
One of the perks of being a duchess and the lady of Hastings Manor was that I could make my
Most of the time.
I bunched a corner of my long brocade skirt and climbed the sweeping stairs toward Victor’s
office. The bustle, heavy with satin ribbons, bounced lightly, tapping on the small of my back.
On the landing, one of the little cleaning machines that roamed the house trotted around, buzzing
as its brushes dusted the white marble floor. A puff of steam trailed behind it while its wheels and pistons
whirred. I strode on, the star-bright tiles sparkling under my velvet slippers.
The butler bowed stiffly, carrying a tray with tea and cakes that smelled of cinnamon. “Your
Grace.” He stepped aside to let me pass.
“Hollom.” My heels’ click-clacking noise died down on the blue rug covering the entrance in front
of Victor’s office.
I raised my fist to knock but stopped inches away from the gleaming, polished oak wood, needing
a moment to collect myself. Victor had to see reason. Convincing him that my role in the investigation
was vital wouldn’t be easy, but I was nineteen and properly trained in combat. More or less. The point
was, I could face danger.
My resolve wavered, and I bit the inside of my cheek. On light feet, I turned and slid inside my
late father’s personal library. Victor’s supernatural hearing wouldn’t catch me in the room protected by
thick walls, and the old leather-bound volumes calmed my nerves.
I cleared my throat before rehashing my speech. “Victor, you’re the leader of Military Intelligence
Seven, but as Duchess of Sussex, I have the right to . . .” I shook my head. This sounded patronizing. I
took a deep breath to slow my pounding heart, glad that I wasn’t wearing a corset. Another perk of being
I squared my shoulders. A wrong word and Victor would dismiss me. “Victor, I kindly request…
would you… I would appreciate if you assign me to the ongoing investigation on the Heart Collector,
since I believe my skills can be an asset.” There. Simple, polite, and to the point.
I jutted out my chin and smoothed my bodice. I should’ve worn my dark green dress. It made me
look taller and older. This blue gown gave me a childish air with its velvet ribbons and budding roses.
After another deep inhalation, I marched toward Victor’s office again and knocked on the door.
“Come in.” The thick door muffled his deep voice.
I wiped my sweaty hand on my skirt before turning the handle and stepping into the office that had
once belonged to my father. Victor and his younger brother Jamie stood up from their stuffed chairs and
“Good morning, Victor, Jamie.”
After the dimly lit corridor, the sunlight streaming from the floor-to-ceiling window blinded me,
and I squinted, closing the door behind me.
I walked to the desk that occupied almost half of the room, keeping my eyes on Victor’s frowning
face. “I need to talk to you.”
Victor stretched out an arm, indicating the empty chairs. His serious expression added wisdom to
his five and twenty years. “Of course, Isabel. Please, sit.”
I perched on the very edge of the chair and set my back straight to not crush my bustle. Victor sat
at his desk while Jamie settled himself next to the fireplace.
“Is something the matter?” Jamie leaned forward, his blond hair swishing about his cheeks. “You
I faced him. “Well, I—” A dark blue bruise marked his chin, his bottom lip was split, and a fresh
cut marred his forehead. “What happened to you?”
Jamie clenched and unclenched his fists. “My encounter with one of the Supernaturals we’re
trying to recruit didn’t end well.”
I focused on Jamie, unleashed my power, and reached out for his feelings. A rush of energy
flooded me, and heat warmed my chest. His anger, annoyance, and humiliation washed over me. Physical
pain stabbed him as well. I gently prodded his body with my mental strength. His ribs hurt, and a cut on
his back throbbed. His feelings left the sour taste of unripe grapes in my mouth.
I swallowed. “This Supernatural must be particularly strong to hurt you.”
Jamie stroked his bruised skin. A new wave of mortification surged from him. “He is moderately
Moderately strong? Jamie could bend iron bars with two fingers and lift twenty times his weight.
How strong was this Supernatural?
Victor shifted his gaze to me. “What did you want to talk to me about?”
“Exactly about this.” I nodded toward Jamie. “This Supernatural you want to recruit for the
investigation on the Heart Collector.”
Victor knitted his blond eyebrows in the same way Jamie would. “You don’t have to concern
yourself with that. Jamie will soon make another attempt to meet this Supernatural.”
“But.” I paused to read Victor’s feelings. His determination and mild exasperation reached me. It
wasn’t a good start, but maybe my speech would convince him. “I would like you to allow me . . . I mean,
to assign me to this mission since I request, kindly, I request kindly, that it would be me, myself, to do it.”
Damn. So much for rehashing. I clasped my hands in my lap not to show how much they trembled. “I’d
like it to be me.” I swallowed. If I weren’t so eager to get the job, I’d laugh at Victor’s scrunched face.
I searched his feelings again. Even without my supernatural empathetic power, the hard set of his
jaw and his narrowed icy blue eyes told me he wasn’t pleased. I cleared my throat. “I want to meet this
“You want what?” Jamie asked, propping an elbow on the mantelpiece.
I ignored him. “What did you say his name was?”
“I didn’t.” Victor straightened the pile of documents on his desk, arranged quills and inkbottles,
and loosened his bow tie.
Fun facts about me:
My toes are prehensile. I can pick everything up with them.
I’m dyslexic. I thought that ‘Breaking Bad’ was ‘Baking Bad,’ a reality show on cooking-impaired
I believe that artichokes are weapons.
I believe in Santa Claus. Sue me.
I watch Fanny from the left side of the stage at the Sly Fox Theatre, and I’m grinning from ear to
ear as she dances for her adoring crowd. When she rocks her chest back and forth, the pigs
squeal with delight (and they squeal even louder when she whips off her beaded ruby top to
reveal her sparkly pasties). The wolves howl their approval as she gyrates her belly while
running her fingers through her long red hair. And the owls hoot with anticipation as she
twitches her hips to the rhythm of music—Wynonie Harris’ “I Want My Fanny Brown”. Of
course, Fanny’s last name isn’t Brown. It’s Firecracker, because that’s just what she is. And
what are all these animals anticipating? The big finish, naturally. As the song nears its end,
Fanny turns around and starts shaking her moneymaker, faster and faster as the music grows
louder. Then, when Wynonie belts out his last lyrics, she unhooks her beaded skirt and tosses it
aside to reveal her famed booty in all its glory. Clad only in a thong, Fanny quickly shakes it
from side to side along with the closing notes. I’ve seen that act thousands of times, but it never
grows old. Not so coincidentally, I suppose, neither do I.
That’s because I’m a Cartoon, nothing but ink and paint. So is the rest of the audience, as well
as everyone else in McCayville. While we may not be flesh and blood like the humans, we still
feel, and most of what we feel is joy. After all, there’s not much cause for sadness in this little
neighborhood within the Windy City, because life is pretty predictable. Get up, go to work, run
errands, go home. Maybe knock back a few drinks at the Wet Whistle Saloon on the way back,
or catch a show here at the Sly Fox. But then it’s time to relax with the spouse and kids, if you
have them. Of course, I don’t, looking how I look and doing what I do. I sometimes imagine
what that would be like, though, and how happy I could be.
But I digress. I’m up next, dancing to “Snatch And Grab It” by Julia Lee. As the horns start up,
I slowly stride onto the stage in my powder blue robe and slippers. But as Ms. Lee starts singing,
I step back and forth, shaking my own booty to the knocks. Most of my own dancing is
stepping, to and fro or side to side. I don’t have the moves that Fanny does. Still, I have what
the crowd wants, what they paid to see. I gladly shimmy my hips and chest to the trumpets, and
teasingly extend my leg to the crowd during the chorus. Oh, they can try to snatch and grab it,
but Vic will never allow it to happen. No touching—that’s the rule. Try it, and you’re out on
your keister. But they can look all they want, and look they do. Especially as the piano kicks in,
and I start bouncing around the stage. My long blonde hair bounces, and so do the big ol’ boobs
that give me my name. Bazooms they call them, though I’ve never learned why.
“Work ‘em, Bambi!” one of the wolves shouts from way in the back.
Yes, that’s me. Bambi Bazooms, the most famous stripper of them all.
My baby blues go wide and my pink lips pucker into a little “O” as I flick off my slippers and
kick up my heels. As Ms. Lee starts to sing again, I grab the belt of my robe, pull it off, and
shrug off the robe itself. Now I’m only wearing a bra and slip, and that bra looks like it can
barely hold my straining chest. So, I quickly reach back, unhook it, and fling it away. And as
Ms. Lee sings her final lyrics, my bazooms bounce up and down, and my blue tassels twirl
clockwise, then counter-clockwise. It’s a neat trick, and the crowd claps and cheers. The final,
tweeting notes play, so I unclasp my slip and drop it to the stage’s wooden floor to reveal my
sparkly blue thong. With a bow, I thank the crowd for its hospitality and strut through the dark
red curtain behind me.
“Great show, sis,” Fanny drawls in a Georgia accent, as I arrive in the makeup room. Her green
eyes apprise me with a warm gaze as she stands there in her scarlet robe.
“Thanks, Fanny,” I say, glad that she was watching. “You, too.”
“Well, I guess I’m up next!” chirps a girlish voice with a subtle Tennessee twang. “Wish me
We watch as her reddish-brown bob and black cocktail dress pass us on her way to the curtain.
“Break a leg,” Fanny says cheerfully. Then, once the girl is out of earshot, she adds, “Hmph. If
Once Fanny has turned her eyes back toward me, I frown at her with disapproval. “Why do you
always have to be so mean to Cinnamon? We should all be in this together.”
“Sorry, I can’t help it,” she says apologetically, though not with deep regret. “She’s just too …
perky. Her personality, her knockers, and especially that tight little tush of hers. Dang it all,
why did Irv have to draw her so young and perfect?”
“I don’t know,” I reply, with what I hope is a concerned look. “Unfortunately, we can’t ask him,
seeing how he’s long since passed away. But if I had to guess, I’d say it was the culture. Teens
were popular back in the early 1950s, remember?”
Narrowing her eyes at me, Fanny reluctantly admits, “Yeah, I remember. What with their fancy
convertibles, poodle skirts, saddle shoes and sock hops. Ugh, it’s enough to drive a girl to drink.
In fact, I don’t mind if I do.”
With that, she walks over to a nearby makeup table—its mirror all lit up with bright lightbulbs
that surround the frame—and grabs bottles of gin and tonic. Pouring herself a short glass, she
turns around and asks me, “Want one?”
“No thanks,” I say, wrapping myself in a robe that’s powder blue.
Behind me, I hear Amos Milburn’s rendition of “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer” playing
to the unseen crowd. Curious, I peek through the curtain to see how Cinnamon is doing.
Stripped down to black pasties and thong, she’s turned to one side, shaking her butt at her many
admirers. With one hand behind her head, she gives them all a wink, then blows them a kiss
with the other. Watching that, I can see why Fanny is so jealous. All she needs are her looks
and that “tight little tush”, and the other Cartoons are like putty in her hands. It’s that booty that
inspired her name, after all. Cinnamon Bunns. It kind of rolls off the tongue … so to speak.
“How’s she look up there?” Fanny asks me with mild interest, then knocks back a swig of her
“The usual,” I regretfully admit, then drop the curtain and look back to her. “You know, I wish
she’d take her job more seriously. She could really be something.”
“So you’re on her side?” she accuses, setting down her glass before turning on me with a pout.
“I’m not on anyone’s ‘side’,” I reply, hurt by my ink sister’s sense of betrayal. “I just want us all
to do our best. We’re supposed to be a family, right? Besides, it’s good for business.”
“Some family,” Fanny huffs, miffed by my support of my co-worker. “We don’t even share the
“No, we don’t,” I reluctantly agree, not happy with her feelings of jealousy toward Cinnamon.
“But we have a lot more in common than Cartoons who do. Just be nice to her, that’s all I’m
I stare at her pointedly, and her frown slowly becomes a reassuring smirk. “Okay, I’ll give the
kid a chance. Who knows? We might actually end up getting along.”
Fanny chuckles to herself at that last remark, as if she doesn’t believe the possibility. I hope that
time proves otherwise. I really do. However, she’s right about us not sharing the same Artists.
Stanley Ehrenbaum created me and Fanny (in 1943 and 1941, respectively), and Irv Halberstam
created Cinnamon (about a decade later, in 1952). Not that it matters very much, since neither
man stuck around very long after creating us. For most of our lives, we’ve been on our own.
Just then, Cinnamon comes bounding back through the curtain, her performance having ended
with much applause.
“Wow, that’s some crowd tonight!” she happily exclaims, her brown eyes wide with
exhilaration. “If we keep packin’ ‘em in like that, we could see a little extra moolah in our
futures. Know what I’m saying?”
Cinnamon gives Fanny a little wink and a nudge, but my sister merely flashes her a tepid smile.
“C’mon, lighten up!” Cinnamon persists, grinning widely. “This is the best job in the world!
All we have to do is dance and take of our clothes, and the other Cartoons love us for it. What
could be better?”
“Yeah, about that …”
But before Fanny can critique her performance style, we all hear a slow clapping coming up the
hallway to the dressing room, just to the left of the makeup tables.
“Excellent as always, ladies,” a smug baritone says from the darkness, though we can see his
silhouette quickly approaching. “You really do make me proud to be your manager.”
And then he’s standing in the doorway, his long bushy tail merrily swishing behind him. Victor
Vulpine, our boss and the titular owner of the Sly Fox Theatre. Per usual, he’s dressed in his
evening best—a three-piece green suit with a sparkly silver necktie. Of course, he has to make
just as much of an impression as we do, seeing as he owns the place. But there’s just an air
about him, like he’s on top of the world, untouchable. That overconfident grin of his just makes
it all the more clear.
Suddenly he’s right beside me, with one arm wrapped around my waist. “Especially you, my
dear. Our patrons just can’t seem to get enough of you. And neither can I.”
His paw gently squeezes me as I stand frozen in shock. Vic’s shown me physical affection
before, but never in front of the other dancers. He’s also never been this forward before … or
lustful. I don’t know what to say or do, so I remain quiet.
“Keep up the good work,” he whispers close to my ear, so close I can feel his hot breath against
my face. Then, with a couple of soft pats on my rear end, he releases me and waves us all
goodbye. “The rest of you as well, of course. And remember, aside from being the big day,
tomorrow night is Human Night. So you must perform your absolute best, and you must be in
tip-top shape. Sleep well, and ta-ta for now.”
With a humble smile and bow, Vic steps backward through the doorway, then turns and walks
back up the hall. As soon as he’s gone, I relax my tight shoulders and let out a deep, long breath.
“Geez, what a scumbag,” Fanny says in disbelief, then takes another swig of her gin and tonic.
“You shouldn’t put up with that shit, Bambi.”
“I know,” I softly reply, still in a daze from what had just happened.
Cinnamon simply looks confused as she muses, “Okay, so he’s a bit of a creep. At least he
doesn’t abuse us, and he pays us well.”
“Ha!” Fanny suddenly exclaims. “That’s a laugh. We’re not exactly living high on the hog,
here. Unless that hog is high in the sky, infested with fleas, and shaped like a cramped
“You just have to manage your money,” Cinnamon sniffs, offended by Fanny’s rebuttal. “For
example, I’m saving up for a big trip to Los Angeles. Ahhh, sunshine and movie stars. I can
almost see it now.”
“Keep dreaming, honey,” Fanny retorts with a bemused smile. “It’ll take forever to save up that
“Well, then, it’s a good thing we’ve got forever, isn’t it?”
Cinnamon gazes at Fanny with a satisfied grin on her cute little face, and my sister can only roll
her eyes and sigh in defeat. “There is that. In that case, send me a postcard when you get out
there. And be sure to take plenty of pictures.”
“Aye-aye, captain!” Cinnamon replies, giving her a mock salute.
Fanny chuckles softly at her buffoonery, then turns to me and asks, “Wanna hit the lanes? It’s
quitting time, but it’s still early.”
I shrug and reply, “I don’t know. I’m not very good … “
“So what? Neither am I. But I think we all need to unwind a little. And there’s no harm in
celebrating early, is there?”
“Okay, but no promises,” I say more brightly, and Cinnamon cheerfully claps her hands.
“Wait till you see me roll,” she says excitedly. “I’ve been practicing nearly every day.”
Fanny looks at her with annoyance, and asks, “And who invited … ?”
I clear my throat and shoot her another pointed look.
“All right, but don’t steal the spotlight,” she says reluctantly. “This is for Bambi. And throw on
some clothes, will ya? It’s unladylike to stand around like that.”
Cinnamon merely looks down, shrugs and grabs her flannel shirt off a chair by one of the
makeup tables. Fanny and I throw off our robes and put on our dresses and shoes, then we all
head out the back door.
Alley Cat Lanes is only a few blocks away on Avers Avenue, near Leland, so we walk. As we
head up the street, I shoot a quick look back at the Sly Fox. It doesn’t look like much on the
outside—boxy, made of yellow and white brick, with white mouldings and arches around the
windows. But the marquee above the doors tells you all you need to know. And like with a
Cartoon, it’s what’s on the inside that counts.
After we go inside the bowling alley, we grab our balls and shoes, then settle down at Lane 5.
Cinnamon is up first, and of course she bowls a strike.
“YEE-HA!” she shouts with a country twang, jumping into the air and throwing up her arms as
all the pins clatter and fall to the hardwood.
“Didn’t I tell you … ?”
“Oh, hush,” I say, interrupting Fanny’s admonishment as Cinnamon shakes her denim-clad butt
in celebration. “Let her have some fun. It won’t ruin mine, I promise.”
“If you say so,” Fanny replies with a huff, then rises from her seat, smooths down her russet
swing dress, picks up her ball, and takes her position behind the foul line.
In a series of fluid motions, she strides toward the line, brings her arm back, and then gently lays
the ball on the lane. It misses its mark a bit, leaving a few pins just left of center. But she
knocks those down on her second throw, giving her a spare.
Now it’s my turn. I gulp before getting up to smooth down my periwinkle A-line dress, then
walk over to the ball return and pick up a ten-pounder. I slowly take up my spot behind the foul
line, then inhale a deep, nervous breath and let it out. I know this won’t be pretty, but I just have
to suck it up.
“Here goes,” I say softly to myself as I bring back my arm while beginning my stride to the line.
But it all goes horribly wrong. As I pick up speed, my big bazooms bounce on my chest,
slowing me almost to a halt. I lose momentum as well as balance, and lean over too far as my
throwing arm flings the ball onto the middle of the lane. It lands with a thud, then slowly rolls
toward the right gutter. Thankfully, I’m lucky. I manage to pick up two pins before it clunks out
Discouraged, I hang my head as I shuffle back to my seat. As soon as I plop down, Fanny places
her hand on my shoulder and gives it a little squeeze.
“Don’t feel bad,” she tells me comfortingly. “Maybe you’re just not cut out for this sport. Tell
you what, though, you could bowl the rest of the game from a standing position. Underhand, if
you really have to.”
I shake my head, unsure if that’s what I should really do. “No, that would just make me feel
silly. I don’t want anyone to pity me because I can’t play properly.”
“Hey, if it works, it’s proper in my book,” Fanny assures me. “If anyone teases your form, I’ll
just tell them to shove off.”
So, I bowl the rest of the game from a standing position (but not underhand, because it’s not
ladylike to stick my butt in the air like that). Bad form or not, I end up with a 45, which is much
better than I had expected. Afterward, the three of us walk over to the refreshment counter and
order malts—a vanilla for me, a strawberry for Fanny, and a chocolate for Cinnamon. It’s nice
for a while, but then, out of the corner of my eye, I see a familiar figure sit down a couple seats
to my left.
“I couldn’t help but notice your form out there,” the young man says in a nasally, Jersey accent,
and I can sense him ogling every inch of my body.
“I’ll bet you couldn’t, Eddie,” I say disapprovingly, not even bothering to look at the greaseball.
Really, he puts so much pomade in his hair, it’s a wonder it doesn’t catch fire when he smokes
those stupid cigarettes of his.
“Not that form”, he oh-so-helpfully clarifies, so I obligingly turn to look at his goofy, freckly
face. Eddie Dobbs is dressed in a silly tweed jacket and shorts, with a plaid bow-tie that he
probably thinks looks cool. “That’s an Artist-given gift. I’m talkin’ about the way you bowl. I
can give you a few pointers. All I need from you is a few minutes of your time, and you’ll be a
pro in no … time … flat.”
“No thanks,” I tell him, politely but aloofly. “I think I can bowl just fine without your help.”
“Really?” he asks in surprise. “Seems like such a waste. Especially with your … obvious
“Didn’t you hear the lady, Ed-win?!” Cinnamon suddenly exclaims, turning on the pestering
little twerp. “She said ‘No’! Now amscray before I have to pound some sense into ya.”
As she stares him down, Cinnamon pulls up her sleeve and threateningly flexes her bicep. Per
usual, it bulges and pulses at twice the size it should (then again, she is a Cartoon).
“Okay, okay,” Eddie relents, finally getting up from the stool next to us. “You don’t gotta tell
me twice. Geez, you gals ain’t nevah gonna get hitched with those attitudes. Just don’t come
crying to me when you end up as shriveled old maids.”
“Like you’d ever be our first choice,” Fanny scoffs.
“Hey, I’ll have you know I’ve got ladies lining up for blocks just to go out with me,” he protests,
turning up his nose at us and straightening his bow-tie. “But since you’re not interested, I’ll bid
you a fond arrivederci.”
With a flourishing bow, he turns on his heels and walks away. Despite myself, I actually wait
until he’s out the side door before looking back at my friends.
“Don’t let Eddie get to you, Bambi,” Fanny advises, flashing me a supportive smile. “You can
do much better than him.”
“I know,” I say blithely. “After all, do I look like an old maid to you?”
“Not at all,” she says with a smirk. “If I had to wager, I’d say you’re not a day over twenty-
“And of course you’d be right.”
We all laugh knowingly at that joke. After all, I do appear to be that age, because that’s how
Stanley drew me. Just like Fanny looks about thirty, and Cinnamon looks eighteen. We’ll
always look young. How I feel … well, that’s a different story. You see, tomorrow I’ll turn fifty.
That’s not old, but I’ve still been around the block a few times.
While looking out the window in the door through which Eddie just left, I notice that the sun has
just set beneath the horizon, and a brilliant orange tinges the growing purple sky. How
appropriate. As if I need another reminder of how quickly time passes. Fanny follows my gaze
and pushes herself away from the counter.
“Guess it’s time to go home,” she says with equal parts disappointment and content. “See you
tomorrow night, Cinnamon.”
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world!” the girl chirps, then hugs each of us in turn. With a hop and a
skip, she’s out the front door, whistling all the way.
“Listen,” Fanny says nervously, “I know you’re not exactly thrilled about the big party
tomorrow, but try to have fun, okay?”
“I’ll be fine,” I assure her. “I mean, what’s another year to someone who will live forever?”
My sister smiles with relief, then wraps me in a light embrace and stands up. I do the same, and
we walk out into the evening.