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The Seductress


Marko Lampas


Death's Obsession

Vengeance sat on the back of Paul Baron's tongue like the ghost of a sour lemon regretted only after swallowed.

“Joanna would be punished; of that there could be no doubt.” Paul had put his own life on hold for three weeks in order to see that his plans for revenge were carried out perfectly. Private investigator Ray Jordan had uncovered the worst a man could fear, and much of Paul's days and nights were spent on Laurence Brandon's street – watching, waiting, and wrestling with his thoughts, always swinging from ecstasy ... his, to death ... hers.

Once, he believed Joanna Ocklenburg could be his; that single night of passion built expectations that couldn't be denied. But therein hid the venom-filled lie; Laurence now held her in the dark, caressing and loving this goddess of love.

He toyed with the idea of killing Laurence simply to get him out of the way, but it was Joanna who had lied, Joanna who had made a fool of him, and Joanna who owned the darkness and fury he carried inside him like a parasite growing larger by the hour.

And it was Joanna who had to die.

The present

A Nightmare Relived

Inside the charming Columbus Bakery, on the Upper West Side of New York City, a mature Laurence Brandon sat at his corner table with a wine glass in one hand, caressing his closely cropped silver beard with the other. As he glanced over his manuscript, he took a sip or two from the Merlot while his thoughts wandered.

The management had instructed the help not to disturb him while he was writing. The same request was made of the newly arriving patrons who would ask if Mr. Brandon was here and if he would sign their books. They were all thrilled to be seated in the same room with this legendary novelist. The word had gotten out from the salespeople at Barnes & Noble, telling the buyers of his books that he could be found at the nearby bakery if they wished to see him and get his autograph.

Laurence stood up once or twice during dinnertime, to greet his fans and humbly thank each one of them for their interest and good wishes. On some occasions he engaged in casual conversation, eager to learn.

This early evening, the room was full as usual. Many had come to take a look at the handsome author, after whom the room was named. “The Laurence Brandon Room.” Another attraction of this place was the mouth-watering aroma of the freshly baked bread and pastries coming out of the huge oven. After he inhaled deeply, he called upon his muse and contentedly resumed his writing. He wrote many of his manuscripts at this corner table, which was always reserved especially for him. The usual discourses on different subjects attracted Laurence’s keen ears; he was prone to listen to the conversations. This atmosphere provided valued subjects and characters, which would end up in his novels. This particular evening, his deep thoughts were traveling back in time. Way back, more than forty years in the past.

Laurence removed his reading glasses and rubbed his weary eyes. He lifted his head off his hands and stared out of the large window. A vision of a scene appeared to him. He closed his eyes and pressed hard to keep them closed and prevent the tears that began to trickle down his face. His lips and jaw pressed hard on his teeth with his head shaking sideways. The deep creases on his forehead revealed that something was troubling him, something similar to a nightmare he did not wish to see. His right fist began to punch his left hand like a fighter.

“Joe, Joe, look. Something’s the matter with Laurence.” Robert Freeman leaned toward his companion. “He’s having some kind of a nightmare or a seizure. My God, look at him trembling. We’ve got to do something!”

At that moment, Laurence stood up and extended his right hand in a dramatic gesture as if to stop something or someone.

He shouted, “Are you mad? What are you doing? Stop! STOP! ... Oh, NO! ... Oh, God! ... Oh, God! What have you done? Oh, you son of a bitch. What have you done? What have you do...?” With that unfinished sentence he collapsed in his chair, with his wet eyes open, looking straight ahead to a phantom of a mad scene. There was dead silence in the dining room. After few long seconds, Laurence bent his head inside his hands to collect his thoughts. Then he rubbed the palm of his left hand with his right to ease the pain from the blows. His expression was of a man in a trance.

Through clenched teeth, he grumbled to himself, “The nightmare, ... that damn nightmare again. And yet, it isn’t a nightmare, ... but my torment. My life’s torment. Oh! Joanna, Joanna, my love! Why didn’t I stop that madman? Why didn’t I stop that son of a bitch! ... I should’ve gotten that bullet. ... Now my life is bare, nothing, empty like a dry pond. I'm staying alive only because of your last request. ‘Take care of the children.’ Oh, Joanna, if you had not asked that of me, I would have found peace. I would have joined you!”

He lowered his head for a short pause and realized he was in a public place and must come out of his mad scene. With gasping breath, he turned to face them.

“I'm all right, my friends; I'm fine, thank you.” He saw everyone in the dining room looking at him with so much concern. He lowered his head and closed his eyes again. His entire demeanor was one of grief. He relived that horrid scene.

Murmurs from the customers and help filled the dining room, with all concerned and wanting to help this famed novelist of more than twenty-seven best sellers.

Robert signaled for them to go back to what they were doing, and then pulled up a chair and sat next to Laurence. Joe and the management kept some of the customers away to give him privacy.

“Laurence, Laurence, my friend, what’s the matter, what happened? You sounded as if someone was trying to do you harm.”

Laurence nodded his head up and down with the same gloomy expression.

Robert gave him a glass of water and patiently waited. Laurence pulled out his handkerchief and wiped away his tears and sweat , still breathing heavily.

“Laurence,” Robert continued, “what happened, my friend? Please tell me. What did you see that enraged you so?”

He thought if he t old his nightmare he might feel better.

Laurence lifted his head and gave Robert and Joe a thankful nod. “I'm okay.” He stood up and faced the rest of the patrons. He had to say something to bring calmness back into the dining room. With a forced smile and still breathless, he spoke softly.

“I'm sorry, ladies and gentlemen, for disturbing your dinner. I just relived the most horrific scene of my life, a murder, a horrible murder, which took place not far from here, long ago. The murder of the woman I loved totally. I see many of you are too young to remember. It’s the last scene of my autobiography. I appreciate your concern, support, and the love you have shown me for so many years.

Right here, I have seen many of you grow and dream. I remember your conversations and, you know, some of your stories made it into my novels. Many of you became my characters who play in the movies, the theater and life.”

The room cheered him warmly, with many coming to shake his hand. Laurence Brandon was an institution, now in his mid-sixties and still as handsome as ever. This last autobiographical novel, The Seductress, began right here in this old-fashioned bakery.

Robert and Joe returned to their seats, and the rest of the customers did likewise. Laurence, with a smile on his face, sat at his table and resumed his mental travels back in time.


Chapter 1


The Beginning

Laurence Brandon sat at his favorite table next to the large window of the Columbus Bakery, staring at the swirling leaves, and the young girls' long hair whipping about in the strong wind. The sudden change of weather – from seasonable to high winds with freezing rain evolving soon into heavy snow – was catching both hair and leaves by surprise. Newly arrived patrons mumbled complaints about the weather and weathercasters while they scurried along, trying to stay dry. Many were unprepared, lacking umbrellas and proper clothing.

People out on the street were frantically trying to hail a cab, while others were running down the block to catch the rumbling busses, Numbers 7 and 11.

Laurence sat at a side table next to a large window watching the hectic scene outside — the rain quickly changed to freezing drops and spattered against the window as though some kid were throwing a handful of sand at his reflection. The rain turned into heavy snowflakes and quickly blanketed everything in white. This fascinated him, evoking a contented expression on his face; the only time Laurence found contentment was when he focused outside his own life and nightmare.

The outside scene quickly changed to become a beautiful vista. It was a mid-December morning and everyone now assumed winter was coming soon and this would be the first of many snowstorms with which they’d have to cope. As the snowfall increased, the traffic on Columbus Avenue became snarled and the crosswalks almost impassable. A few drivers began to lean on their horns, becoming impatient; but they soon saw there was nothing to do but take it in stride.

He watched the people thread their way between the cars and trucks, crossing the street with care to avoid slipping or being hit by impatient drivers. Everything was now covered with snow: trees, sidewalks, automobiles, and pedestrians.

Christmas decorations were on display in windows and stores everywhere, with the Christmas lights glowing through the falling snow. Several men, working across the street in front of the deli, were bouncing Christmas trees on the sidewalk to shake the snow from the branches in order to display them to suddenly festive customers. In spite of the heavy traffic and the Westsiders rushing to and fro, the scene outside was relatively calm. Laurence found a bit of peace for his split soul just looking outside at the panorama from inside the warm bakery’s window.

The drivers’ exasperation and the necessary pedestrians’ furtive attention to survival served to remind Laurence of that fateful moment when Paul Baron seemed to materialize from vapor – waiting to catch Joanna off guard, with her attention elsewhere.

The sudden darkness signaled the streetlights to turn on, making the snowflakes glitter in their light like brilliant jewels falling from the sky. “There’s something about the snow I love,” Laurence mused. “It covers filth and ugliness with a clean and peaceful tranquility.”

The patrons inside the bakery had settled down and looked out the windows in fascination, happy to be inside listening to the soft music and the whistling sound of the heat from the vents. As if on cue, the wind increased and began hurling snow against the windows.

Laurence stopped his meditation and writing to whisper to the couple sitting next to him. “Bill, Joyce, isn’t it beautiful? It looks as though we’re going to have a rough winter this year, don’t you think?”

“Yes, Laurence, I would certainly agree with rough but I would never call it beautiful,” Bill answered with some annoyance before he and his wife Joyce stood up. “We have to go. I need to put my new car in a garage. Man, this looks like a blizzard to me and I don’t want to leave it on the street.”

“Yes, you’re probably right. Better get it in the garage; I know what that car means to you,” Laurence said with a smile, knowing guys like Bill get very attached to their new cars in the same way the automobiles soon come to own their owners.

Bill had shown it to him a couple of weeks earlier with so much pride, almost the pride of a parent for a child. The couple was childless, probably due to her devoted pursuit of her career. Joyce was a dancer in a Broadway musical, in her late twenties, with a figure and face to attract any man. Her husband was more than ten years older and worked as the news production manager at ABC TV.

“See you tomorrow, Laurence, if we’re not snowed in.”

“I don’t think that will happen. But if it does, put your boots on, man, and have fun walking in the snow. Don’t you remember the fun we had when we were kids? This is New York City, not Buffalo where they get many feet of snow.”

“You’re right, Laurence,” Joyce whispered. She looked at him with her gorgeous green eyes and flashed her flirtatious smile as she put on her coat and hurried to catch up with her husband. From outside the window she turned toward his framed face and tossed him another meaningful look.

That same meaningful look from a beautiful woman had cost him many sleepless nights after the horrors Paul had released upon Joanna and him. Unfortunately, Laurence was hardwired to attract and home in on those very looks and was powerless to turn away before noticing and cataloging each one.

Joyce was just one of many patrons in the bakery who was attracted to Laurence’s good looks and, had he been willing, she would not have hesitated for a moment to have a liaison with this charmer.

Laurence, on the other hand, was the type of man who respected a good friendship and was careful not to hurt her feelings or create another Paul. Sure, Joanna had created the monster Paul became, but still ...

Laurence returned his attention to the falling snow; it was therapeutic and filled his soul with a hard-won peace. Many days, when writing, he would gaze from his apartment window for long stretches in what appeared to be a daydream but was really his tool for recalling experiences, collecting ideas, and weighing bits and pieces of his life to be woven into his next manuscript.

A little girl’s nagging (probably wanting to go outside and play in the snow) turned Laurence’s attention back inside to the occupants of the small tables.

Paintings of European bakeries and many different types of breads and pastries decorated the walls of the dining room adjacent to the main bakery, where the oversize oven was located.

The images reminded Laurence of the time he was traveling in Europe, mostly in Germany and Austria on a three-month Eurail pass, escorting a wealthy and lovely young soprano who was going for the annual auditions. She was the first of three memorable loves in his life.

He would soon have this and many other questions and answers that nagged, plagued, and shadowed his every breathing moment.

And soon he would wish he hadn't wondered.

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