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Excerpt of “Confessions of a Knight Errant”

by Gretchen McCullough

from Chapter 11: Fallout

            The phone rang. “Clover Flower Girls’ Camp. How can I help you?” I swiveled in the chair, as if I were in charge.

            “Is my daughter’s cabin near the crime scene? The property line of the man who was murdered?”

            “Rest assured,” I said. “Your daughter is safe. She’s having her breakfast.”

            “She’s not answering her cell phone,” the voice said.

            “Cell phones are not allowed at Clover Flower,” I said. “It’s listed in the rule book which we handed out at orientation.”

            “What an asinine rule! Are you the one who thought up that stupid rule? You know what you can do with your rule book?”

            “Thank you for calling!” I said, hanging up.

            The phone rang again. “Clover Flower.”

            A gravelly baritone voice said, “Just what kind of operation are you running down there? We thought it was a wholesome Christian camp. We want a full refund or we’ll sue!”

            “We’re looking into the matter. Thank you for calling!” I said.

            “I’m driving over from Houston today to pick up my granddaughter. Have you closed the camp yet?”

            “No, sir, we are still open,” I said.

            “Well, you oughta close if your outfit is the scene of a crime.”

            “Thank you for…”

            Kharalombos trudged in with three sacks of doughnuts from Dunkin’ Donuts. Dagmar followed him. Gudrun waved to him. Dagmar tapped.

            “I want to talk to Mary Alice now,” a voice on the phone said.

            “My Liebchen, can you bring me a cruller? The coconut caramel,” Gudrun said.

            “Mary Alice has just stepped out. She will return your call shortly,” I said.

            “I’m Cameron Wiley, the CEO of Frackers International, based in Houston. I’d appreciate it if you put Mary Alice on the line. I don’t have time for the runaround. I have a board meeting in fifteen minutes.”

            “Mary Alice,” I said, covering the mouthpiece. “It’s Mr Wiley from Frackers International.”

            Mary Alice had sunk so low into the couch that it was difficult for her to get up. She didn’t exactly run to the phone.

            I handed her the receiver.

            “Hello, Cameron,” Mary Alice said. “Everything is under control. Well, yes, it’s a problem. Uh-huh. Yes. McKenzie is fine. We’re cooperating with the police.”

            I peeked out the glass door. A convoy of expensive cars was just pulling into the circular driveway.

            The door flew open. It was windy outside. A number of parents trooped in. Amazingly, Mary Alice regained her composure. “All hands on,” she said. “Gary, keep answering the phone.”

            She and Gudrun greeted the parents cordially, offering them coffee and doughnuts. The anorexic mothers might be tempted by good coffee. Instead of Nescafé, they had splurged on Lavazza Hazel—Italian coffee.

            Mary Alice’s voice boomed, “I can assure you that your children are safe. They are having breakfast right now. If you like, we can all go down to the camp.”

            A woman teetered in the door on Roman sandals with heels like spikes. She was wearing huge sunglasses and was dressed like a porn star: black leather pants too hot for the climate and a flimsy white chemise—really an under-shirt. Nipples the size of silver dollars were visible through the transparent top. Her hair had been dyed pink on one side; the other side was peroxide blonde. Besides the diamond piercing in her nose, she had even more piercings in her ears than she had had before.

            Some of the other mothers, in their tasteful, colored, sleeveless sundresses and rhinestone sandals, gaped at her. One murmured, “There was an article about her in Texas Monthly. Did you read her novel, The Last Roller-Coaster Ride?”

            She stood with her hands on her hips, facing Mary Alice and Gudrun. “Are you ladies the captains of this rodeo? Our niece is in imminent danger.”

            Mary Alice cleared her throat. “She’s not in any danger. Would you like a cup of freshly brewed Italian coffee to start this fine summer morning?”

            One of the mothers said, “We’ve come for a refund. To take our babies home.”

            Another echoed, “Yes! We don’t want anything to happen to our children if you have a serial killer on the loose!”

            Bill was right behind Rose. “Baby, maybe you’d better cool it and find out the whole story.”

            But Rose ignored him and stood at the doughnut table. “You!” Rose stood in front of Kharalombos and tapped her long red fingernails on his chest. “You didn’t take care of my baby like you said you would! Do you know how much money it cost us to get her out of Egypt? Thousands. Thousands. Where’s your confederate?”

            Kharalombos shrank back. “Mesh fahim. Madam, can you kindly take your hands off of me. You did not understand the circumstances.”

            “Why, I never.” Rose set a small wicker basket on the ground. A tiny snout peeked out.

            An anorexic blonde in a pink sundress exclaimed, “Were you in Egypt dur- ing the Revolution? How interesting.”

            Bill was saying, “I posted something about our experiences on my blog if you’re interested in reading about the revolution. Kharalombos is the one you want to talk to. He’s Egyptian.”

            “It’s a miracle Scarlett O’Hara is still alive,” Rose said. Scarlett yapped. Dagmar, who was sitting on a chair next to Kharalombos, growled.

            “Clover Flower,” I said mechanically into the phone. I was dying to escape this unpleasant chore.

            Bill got his information from CNN’s Prue Scoop and posted it on his blog.

            A voice on the phone said: “I am gonna sue you for every penny you’re worth if something happens to my daughter Charlene. I promise you, mister. You won’t even have a pot to pee in.”

            “Uh-huh,” I said. “Have a nice day!” I left the phone slightly off the cradle. Take that!

            Bill extended his hand across the desk. “Buddy, we meet again.”

            “Hello, Bill,” I said, trying to extract myself from his crippling handshake. “I trust you got home safely from Cyprus.” Planes leaving Egypt during the revolution had gone first to Cyprus. From there, travelers had to make their own arrangements to get to the US.

            “Sure thing. We landed on our feet. Got to Atlanta and then on in to Ala- bama. I’m a visiting professor at the University of Texas this fall. And my book on torture just came out. Got good reviews. Of course, George W. started all those initiatives after 9/11 that violate human rights. Waterboarding. Where you dunk the victim’s face in…”

            The room went quiet for a minute.

            One of the fathers huffed, “Yes, sir, we’ve got to protect our way of life from terrorists.” He was wearing a white oxford-cloth shirt, light khaki pants, and leather Topsiders. Did this bland outfit define the “American way of life?”

            Could anyone tell, from the way I looked in my Indian headdress and camp uniform, that I was a committed environmentalist who wanted to protect our natural world? A staunch member of United Socialists of America? Or an aspiring novelist? What did writers look like? Did clothes make the man? Or woman, if you wanted to be politically correct. Of course, a man could also pass for a woman, as I had discovered when I successfully swathed myself in black cloth and donned yellow high heels.

            Gudrun sat down heavily on the couch. “Aaacch,” she said. “Have you ever visited the Egypt, ladies and gentleman? You never met nicer, goot people, who would give you their last disc of bread. And the Pyramids are something out of this world! Ja-aa. My only regret was that the Nile cruise was canceled. Maybe next year if I…”

            The parents clustered around Gudrun. One gushed, “I’ve always wanted to take a Nile cruise. When do you think it will be safe to travel there again?”

            “Well, getting Scarlett shipped to Alabama was a cause of some concern and anguish, as you can imagine,” Bill was saying. “But we’ve got to count our blessings. It was nothing like the time I left Saigon before it fell…”

            Rose caught my eye. Her eyes narrowed, as if she were looking at a cockroach.

            “Anyhow, we appreciate everything,” Bill said, gesturing with his large hands. The knuckles looked swollen. “You tried.”

            Rose snorted. “What in the Sam Hill are you talkin’ about? Gary promised to give Scarlett her insulin shots and he reneged on the deal. Plain and simple!” She pointed a red fingernail at me. “Left Scarlett to rot!”

            “I am really sorry, Rose,” I said. Once in graduate school in New Haven, I had offered to pet-sit for the chair of the chemistry department. While I was putting a leash on one of the dogs, the cat, Marie Curie, escaped through the door and was run over in front of my very eyes. Telling the owner had been excruciating, especially since she was on my dissertation committee.

            “Baby,” Bill said. “No need to get madder than a wet hen. Maybe you don’t have the full story.”

            “Well,” I said. “Bill’s right. That’s not the full story.”

            Could I tell her the real story? We had abandoned Scarlett because we thought Gudrun needed to be rescued and saw ourselves as Knights of the Round Table! We were starring in a pharaonic reality television show!

            “Our neighbors told us you just disappeared into thin air!” she said, snapping her fingers. “That you’d sold some of the animals to a pet shop. You even ate one!”

            “I wasn’t a bad vet,” I said. “Considering.”

            She was right to blame me. On the other hand, we had intended to return. But were good intentions ever enough?

            “Baby, I told you there was a logical explanation. You don’t need to go believin’ every rumor you hear. You’re puttin’ Gary on the spot.”

            “How can this man be trusted with my niece? He can’t even be trusted with animals! We’re pulling my niece out of this godforsaken camp,” Rose said. “This hellhole.”

            “Well, now, Rose,” Bill said, placing his hand on her shoulder. “Don’t go off like a pistol half-cocked.”

            Mary Alice cleared her throat. “We can bring her up to the main office,” she said. “Don’t think she’ll want to go home, though. She’s having a ball.” She frowned and spoke into her walkie-talkie, “Handyman on deck. Handyman on deck. Can you bring Miss Leigh to the front office?”

            “What’s the situation in Egypt now?” a mother asked Kharalombos. “Is it getting any better?”

            Before Kharalombos could answer, Bill jumped in. “Military junta. More violations of human rights. God willin’ and the creek don’t rise, there won’t be any real change with the army in charge. The whole region is in a state of chaos. Did you hear what happened today in Libya? The Clown Man was hunted down by his own people and murdered in cold blood. They found him hiding in a ditch.”

            It sounded bad. I wondered what had happened to the Big Man. And what would happen with the New General who had taken over in Egypt? Would inequities be redressed? Would Egyptian citizens find the justice they dreamed of? Bread, Dignity, Freedom, Social Justice.

            “They say the Big Man from Egypt and his family have also been mur- dered,” Bill said, casually. “But you should ask Kharalombos. He would prob- ably have the latest news on Egypt. What’s happening there, bud?”

            “La’. La’,” Kharalombos said, but could say no more. “Ya rabbi. Ya rabbi.” He looked as if might start sobbing. He had never even seen his son, Nunu.

            Could it be true that the Big Man and his family had been killed? Every day brought turbulent news from Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya—they were calling it “The Arab Spring.” Citizens were demanding freedom and social justice. And there were even rumblings in Syria now.

            “Well, good riddance, I say,” Rose said. “All those dictators in the Middle East should be taken out and shot. Put that in your pipe, darlin’, and smoke it.”

            “Rose, baby,” Bill said. “How can you say that? That’s not the kind of principles liberal democracies are based on.”

            “I don’t give a fat rat’s ass if it’s not politically correct,” Rose said. “They’re monsters. What goes ’round, comes ’round. They deserve whatever they get.”

            I didn’t exactly agree with her—but it was hard to sympathize with the Big Men and their thugs, who were responsible for blood-curdling atrocities. Even though the Clown Man wore a jester outfit and made outlandish, wacky statements that were parodied in the Arabic newspapers, he was still dangerous. Thousands in his country were chained up in dark, underground prisons that were no different than medieval dungeons out of an Alexandre Dumas novel.

            Gudrun patted a place on the couch. “Rose, Liebchen,” she said. “Why don’t you sit down here while you wait for your niece? Do you like the milk in your coffee? Kharalombos…”

            But Kharalombos was bawling in the bathroom. He would never cry in front of women.

            Rose waved at me. “I take it black.” If I had had any strychnine, I would have put it in her coffee.

            “There you go,” I said, handing Rose a steaming cup.

            One of the mothers said, “Aren’t you Rose Leigh? Didn’t you just have a novel published? You were the featured writer at the Austin Writers’ Festival.”

            Rose flopped onto the sofa, as if she were thirteen. “That’s right. My new novel is called Murder among the Serpents.”

            Bill beamed. “I’m real proud of her. She persevered when she was in Cairo. It wasn’t an easy place to write, with a revolution and all. Publishers Weekly said, ‘Even more brilliant than her first.’”

            He didn’t mention that he was hiding the Maker’s Mark from her. Keeping hysteria and madness at bay.

            “Well, darlin’,” Rose said, without any further prompting, “it’s a novel about a preacher who murders his wife with a rattlesnake. The Church with Signs Following believes in the letter of the law, rather than the spirit. All cock ’n’ bull. If you raise the snake to the sky and he doesn’t bite you, it’s proof of your faith. God will save you from harm.”

            Was Bill ever tempted to get rid of her?

            The mothers stared at her with their mouths agape.

            Gudrun said, “It sounds very exotic.” Then she laughed. “I can’t imagine the Lutherans doing that in our church. So strange. What is the cock ’n’ bull?”

            “A lot of hooey,” Rose said.

            Gudrun’s face was blank.

            Rose turned toward me. “By the way, did you find your novel, Pure Water? You had all that time during the Revolution to search for it. Looking under my bed. Tell me, what did you find? Anything to tit-till-ate you?”

            How did she know? Or was she bluffing?

            “I didn’t know you were a writer,” Mary Alice said, biting into a chocolate-glazed doughnut. “You’re a man of many talents.”

            “It’s only a matter of time before my agent sells it. I’ve written a thriller on a hot topic,” I said. “Water in Egypt.”

            I was forced to admit that the manuscript was foul and stank to high heaven! Bill was staring at the doughnuts. Was he embarrassed that they had torn the manuscript up and used it for scrap paper? I imagined Rose reading it to Bill in bed after a bondage session using the handcuffs, or maybe even the whip: “Listen to this, darlin’: ‘I was a man on a mission. I would get to the bottom of all the lies about clean water. I was neat, shaved, and sober, and I hailed a black and white taxi in Cairo. The driver opened the door with a screwdriver.’”

            Rose laughed lightly. “Well, I wrote three novels before I ever published anything. Don’t despair! Don’t despair! Of course, after The Last Roller Coaster Ride, I was picked up by Huff & Huff as part of their ‘Emerging Voices from the South’ series when I was just thirty-five.”

            “Rose,” Bill said, clearing his throat, “I think you might be pourin’ it on a tad thick now.”

            Gudrun looked at me. “I am getting a headache. Is there any Tylenol in the first-aid kit, Gary? Do you understand what they are saying?”

            “More or less.” I sympathized with her. All those years of missing jokes or idiomatic expressions in Arabic could throw you off in conversation. And then people raced on to the next topic.

            An anorexic woman in a pink sundress asked, “I have always wanted to write. Do you offer workshops?”

            Rose tapped her false fingernails impatiently on the coffee table. She said, “Don’t believe in ’em. You either have the talent or you don’t. I’m tellin’ ya, honey, you can’t squeeze blood from a stone.”

            The anorexic woman looked crestfallen. “But didn’t you?”

            “I was hailed as a prodigy by the late Truman Capote,” Rose said, continuing to tap her fingernails on the coffee table. “The MFA. from Alabama was irrelevant.”

            “Well.” Mary Alice cleared her throat. “There is the parable of the talents, if you know your scripture. Would any of you like to see your children? They’re in the art room now. They’re doing collage today.”

            Mary Alice led the parents away. It was a parable I should have absorbed— it would have saved me years and years of channeling my energy in the wrong direction.

            “Hold down the fort, Gary. You’ve been a great help,” Mary Alice called from the open door. The wind blew the insurance agreement off the desk. “The phone’s stopped ringing. That’s a good sign.” She gave me a thumbs-up.


Confessions of a Knight Errant is available in print and as an ebook
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