The following excerpt is a sample from the work in progress, "The Serpent and the Spear", a novel set in Manhattan in 1959 in the haze of a post-war euphoria, with business booming and not a care in the world.  Enter the ambitious and self-centered sales executive, Mr. Rich, along with his desired paramour, M. Cassidy, both workers for the Computer Research Corporation; both of them, whether they know it or not, troubled souls in untroubled times. Perhaps they both will find that the joys of sleep pale in comparison to the joys of awakening?

Taxis rushed by in a blur of yellow and silver glinting in the setting sun, as Rich made his way to the Ritz-Carlton.  The old-style Londonesque street lamps began to flicker on in the receding twilight, while the buildings changed hue from dusky red to empty gray, losing the touch of the heat more and more with each moment.  Just ahead loomed the powerful figure of the Ritz-Carlton brand, the crowned lion seated astride the Ritz-Carlton name.  Rich thought of how fitting such a brand was and how it suited his taste so perfectly.  If he were to open a hotel one day, he certainly would be hard-pressed to equal such a heroic and memorable image.

The time, 6:30 PM, almost too early to be fashionable.  So, Mr. Rich seated himself on a bench underneath a street lamp and waited for a few minutes to make an appropriate entrance to the hotel.  Watching the long shadows trace themselves across the Lion on the Ritz-Carlton logo engrossed him entirely.  Over the course of five minutes, the lion appeared to be a dove, a dragon, and then something resembling an old Chinese god;  Light, ever and anon a tricky source of illusion and falsehood.

“I’ve always thought the Swiss should have been more creative”, commented a voice at his side.

He turned to the man seated on his right with surprise, as he had not heard him arrive.

“The Swiss?”

“Yes, it was their company in the old country supposedly.”

“It suits us better”, said Mr. Rich smugly.

“Why should it suit us more than them?”, inquired the stranger with some surprise, which seemed to annoy Mr. Rich

“Hell, because we know how to put such inventions to use far better in the land of opportunity.  Hard business requires its well-earned rewards!”

“Well, Mister, don’t go blowin’ all that hard earned cash in one place.  And…

beware the light you cannot see.”

Mr. Rich chuckled good-naturedly as the man gathered his hat and coat and walked off down the street, no doubt to catch the subway out to the country.

After a few more fleeting minutes and a cigarette to steel the nerves, Mr. Rich also left the safety of the bench and ascended the imposing staircase past the attendants and luggage porters to the hotel entrance.  The door attendant opened the door with a smile and respectful greeting, and a beam of welcoming light, along with the smell of fine food and tobacco wreathed him in bliss, while the quintet inside played Kind of Blue in stunning style.  

A glance around the room, awash in the colors of classily clad ladies with men in black tuxedos, revealed that Ms. Cassidy had not yet arrived.  He would recognize her form anywhere.  

So, he strode to the bar through the chuckling crowds of men and women lost in the bliss of a post-war windfall, through the haze of tobacco smoke gathering around the warm lanterns and chandeliers, past the negro band on stage, right up to the bar, upon which he leaned with practiced ease.  

“Bartender, one Old Gold and… --The forest with the trees --.”  

He leaned in and raised his eyebrows with his final phrase, and the bartender knew exactly what he meant.  Deftly opening a drawer underneath the bar and removing an unmarked bottle, he wordlessly poured a generous amount in a glass with a few rocks and handed him a golden tray with an Old Gold cigarette artfully placed in a groove on the side.  

The music picked up to a generous tempo and a few younger rich kids began to semi-reservedly thrash about on the dance floor in movements reminiscent of the Roaring Twenties.  They were quickly accosted by an attendant and asked to cease from causing such a public disturbance.

Mr. Rich smiled as he lit his cigarette.

The music resumed its low, slow dance movement.  

The time, 7:03 PM.  Mr. Rich puffed carelessly on his cigarette and had a sip of the beverage in his other hand, taking in the scenes of the room with delight.

“Heya, Mr. Rich, fancy seein’ ya here!”

Turning towards the source of the voice revealed a provocatively clad woman standing beside him at the bar, a young woman of tender age.  Her face seemed vaguely familiar.

“Hey there sweetheart, have I seen you somewhere before?”

Her face barely disguised its hurt.  

“Well, yes sir, ya bought me a drink right here and we ate iced cream right over there at that booth.  Surely ya remember me?...’ specially the part aftah all ‘that?”

“I sure don’t.  But say, you’re a pretty gal, here -- buy yourself something nice and have a good night.”

With barely a glance at her he handed her a twenty dollar bill and continued downing his whiskey. He felt the flame within him as he took one long sip.  He deadened the feeling with another drag on the cigarette.  Tobacco and strong drink, what a perfect combination.  

He glanced to his left and the woman had gone, just as quickly as she had arrived.  

The time, 7:15 PM, slightly too late to be fashionable.  

Mr. Rich frowned but refused to allow this crisis to ruin the joys of the night.  He turned to accost the bartender once more, and almost started with surprise as he saw Ms. Cassidy descending from the private dining room from the balustraded private staircase as if she herself were an angel ascending and descending over Jacob.

Such stories from his youth rarely spoke to him anymore, but this moment was eloquent without words.  He could not help but let his jaw drop with amazement.  He instantly felt a need to puff a cigarette; looking down revealed it had gone out.

He scarcely remembered, nor was he aware of how these things came to be, but the next he remembered he was seated at a corner booth across from her.  Her eyes were all he could see, they bored holes, seemingly into the depths of his soul.  

“So your father fought in the Great War?”

Ah, yes they had been talking about that.

“Yes, he was a cavalry commander.  The last of a dying breed -- a poor fool.  He was lucky to return with half a body.”

“And you fought in what theater?”

“All three years, Korea.”

He normally avoided this topic, but it was obvious this woman would destroy him if he did not submit.  

“And what did your father say about your decision to be a warrior?”

“He called me a damn fool, old bastard.  Couldn’t seem to understand that all I ever wanted was to live half the life he lived.  Yet men will ever live in the shadow of their fathers’ greatness.”

“Are you happy?”

The childish simplicity of this question and its vague nature confounded him.

“Well, of course I am.  What does happiness even mean?  I take as many of the gifts this life can give me and try to get off better than I started.  That’s all any man can really ask.”

This conversation was not going in the right direction at all.  Time to move it in the right direction.

“Does your husband know you are here tonight?”

She looked at him with a slight hint of incredulity, “And how about your wife?  I’m sure she gave her full permission for this business meeting.”

With a quick intake of breath he pursed his lips and looked out into the room on the dance floor.

A lull in the conversation ensued and they both looked off wistfully into the crowd of slow dancing nobles, clothed in dresses of satin and silk and tuxes of the finest material.  The music changed to an instrumental version of the Tennessee Waltz.  Maybe her southern morals made her so difficult. A dance could quickly fix that; most women fell for a guy who could handle a lady on the dance floor.   She interrupted his plans before he could hatch them.

“Do you ever wonder if we must dance the dance they have always danced?”

“If it so happens that a dance will result in joy for more than one person, why not take a chance and see where it goes?”

Her next reply showed he obviously mistook her meaning.

“I always thought that I would go away to a faraway land to walk along the shores of the Nile or scale Kilimanjaro in Africa – or maybe see the Pyramids of Giza!.  I never dreamed I would be held captive here, a desperate soul in desperate times.”

The surprise on his face dug gashes in his brow.

“Held captive?  Desperate times?  We beat the Japs and I saw friends bleed to death to hold back those Commies in Asia.  Don’t talk to me about desperate times.  Times have never been better.  You’re welcome.”

He expected her to look cowed into submission like most women or even leave in consternation, but she just looked at him with those round blue eyes with a glassy-eyed look of compassion.

“Stop looking at me like that...”

She responded as easily as he had remembered his mother responding before cholera and the tears.

“Surely you have realized that this world is an illusion.  That is why our times are desperate;  everyone has forgotten this.”

“That kind of thinking makes men go mad in a foxhole.  That kind of thinking nearly killed me.  What are you some kind of beatnik wanna-be?”

He hadn’t realized he had stood up from the booth, and she looked at him with a look of compassion turning to fear.  The music had dimmed, and a few faces were turned to him with concern.  

He quickly regained composure.

“Ms. Cassidy, I will see you at work on Monday.  Enjoy the rest of your weekend.”

With that, he turned and left, and the sound of the joyful music, along with the warm light and wafts of smoke receded from view and memory; along with the joyful faces of the noble crowd; along with the careless ecstasy of a city too enraptured with the success of the present to care for one man’s deep stirrings of doubt.  All of this faded quicker than the dreams that tormented him that night:

A hill in the middle of a desert plain, the plain dotted with charred wreckage and shell holes, the hill clean and white in the mid-day sun, rising clearly towards the broad, blue expanse of the sky in the distance, the hill white as if it had been bleached by his mother once long ago in another life.

He struck out from his own lonely shell hole from which he viewed all of this, hoping to make it to the top of the hill to get his bearings.  His feet crunched in the dry sand and gravel; to his right, an old Ford Galaxie, charred by flame; to his left, what once was a building, now charred and blackened further by the scorching heat -- and not a human form in sight.  

He awoke.

Unpublished Work © 2019 Brandon S Moore ~ All Rights Reserved