A Very Fine Wine

The Médoc Peninsula features a gravelly soil, which the winter wind, coming off the Atlantic Ocean, flings into the swells of rolling lowlands. Salt and grit, then, imbue themselves into the vine. The summer sun cooks the salt and grit after long, soaking rains drench the soil and the vines. The vines while away the summer by sucking everything that might be considered a nutrient into itself, the sun, the wind, and the sucking clasping hands together in a common effort to cause pollens of every sort of weed to be infused into the grapes, which are trampled and pressed, dumped into great vats to be left to the ravages of yeast consuming the sugars, then stored in wooden barrels in musty basements.

Some mighty fine vintages are thereby produced.

A Very Fine Wine

The Icon of St. Sofia, Chapter 3

An excerpt:

When it was reported to Simon that Ivan had set a watch, he nodded, but his ministers witnessed a twitch in his eyebrow, that they rose a bit in evidence of some minor alarm. He called for Pyotr, the chief minister, the man overseeing the guard. “Pyotr, my son,” Simon said, “The tsar has confirmed with the thieves of his realm that something valuable is buried with Sofia.”

“Indeed, your Eminence,” Pyotr replied. “Ivan, my most trusted eye and arm, is resting even this afternoon that he might rise at dusk to take his station outside the convent.”

“Ah, yes, Ivan,” said Simon, and he leaned back into his chair. “He has the mind and heart of a tsar himself, along with the name, if only he had the family. At compline I will pray for him.”

Thus it was in the very darkest hour of the night, shaded darker by the turmoil of the heavens, as cloud fought cloud for supremacy over the land, sending their winds in blasts, like the volleys of warfare, bending trees and shrubbery, who rustled loudly in every kind of protest against this disturbance in what should have been the quiet hours of rest. The many watchers of the convent strained to discern one movement of shadow from another, to distinguish one sound of nature from a human footstep.

The Icon of St. Sofia, Chapter 3

The Icon of St. Sofia, Chapter 2

The Continuation of The Adventures of Sigegard Ainsworth, a pastiche of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot.

Chapter Two: In which Ivan argues with Simon concerning the provenance of the ruby, but despite his protestation, his wife Sofia dies and the pendant asserts its power.



An Excerpt:

The ministers saw that Ivan’s eyes now burned red, and at first they saw the wrath of a king, but tears rimmed his eyes, and he began to weep. “O Father!” he said to Simon. “Father! My beloved priest! I have sinned and brought misfortune to my bride and to Russia! I would have my wife die a blessed death.”

The Metropolitan cocked his head. “A blessed death is granted to all Orthodox, my son. For your wife, at stake is beatification. Moreover, I assure you, not my will, but God’s will, granted to her on the basis of your penance.”

Ivan wept.

Simon continued, “Nevertheless, the same curse that you have wrought by putting your hand around the ruby of blood shall overcome all who do the same, but none shall be great, Ivan, as you are great. And Russia shall never be counted as a great nation.”

Ivan said, “I shall bury the pendant with her, and end this horrible curse.” The Metropolitan nodded, rose, and when Ivan rose, the two embraced, as brothers who have experienced the sting of battle together might embrace.

Sofia was stricken and lay dying on her bed, her face growing ever paler as the ruby drew her life away from her. Ivan never left her side. On the seventh day of April she succumbed. As Ivan wept over the corpse of the Mother in Russia, some witnesses claimed that her last words were to Ivan, a whisper that said, “I am being received into the bosom of Our Blessed Mother.” Other witnesses were adamant that her dying whispers could not be thus deciphered, but all agreed that she died peacefully, apart from much pain.

When she died, Ivan unclasped the pendant from around her neck and entrusted it to no one, preferring instead to tie it to his body next to his skin, beneath his undergarments. This he did in plain view of many witnesses.


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The Icon of St. Sofia, Chapter 2

The Icon of St. Sofia, Chapter 1

The Continuation of The Adventures of Sigegard Ainsworth, a pastiche of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot.

Chapter One: In which Ivan the Great gives his wife a gift to acknowledge her sanctity and, more importantly, her power.



An excerpt:

With those words, he presented her with the pendant, opened, cradled in both his hands, not yet fitted with chain, but already of such brilliant craft that jewelers all over Asia and Europe clamored to be chosen for such a menial task. With her hand upon his, and with her eyes within his, she said, “No, you shall be my lord, as you have been faithful husband to me since I was a child. The blood you shed you shed for me, a Mother in Russia, a mother of Russia, O merciful father, O Tsar of Moscow and all Russia.”

Those witnesses standing near the window of the throne room, which was situated to receive the rising sun at the Vernal Equinox, reported what they saw to the people. Even without a command from the Great Tsar, a feast was proclaimed, and that very day, many fine beasts were slain and prepared for banquets throughout Muscovy, and the next day news of the feast began to spread, until all the lands of the Great Tsar feasted in honor of the Bride of Asia, Mother Russia, Sofia, the wife of Ivan the Great.

Those witnesses standing near the door to the throne room, which was shaded by shutters, blinds, and guards, reported what they saw to the Offices of Simon the Metropolitan. When he heard the news, he sighed, saying, “This is a portent that more heresies shall be born of this age. Error shall creep into the hearts of the people. Satan himself is responsible for the finding of this blood ruby, a token given to the Tatar chiefs in exchange for the burning, raping, and murder of countless Orthodox martyrs. Now this ‘Mother of Russia’ wears it with pride. What a foolish thing Ivan Vasilyevich has done!” He grew silent for a moment. His ministers stood, quavering, and shuffling away from him, yet they said they saw his face radiate a light brighter than that cast by the lamps. He spoke again: “The life of Sofia is even now drawn into the ruby. Men shall grasp the pendant and thereby accomplish great deeds, but they shall never be great.”


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The Icon of St. Sofia, Chapter 1

Sigegard Ainsworth, Chapter 10


A mystery serial presented as a contemporary homage to Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot.

Chapter Ten: In which we make our narrow escape from our prospective murderers.

An excerpt:

“Do you have your pistol, my dear John?” he asked, looking at me. I patted my right pocket. “Good man,” he said.

I objected. “It is illegal in the State of New York to act offensively with a firearm. You must be cornered; otherwise, a jury will convict you of manslaughter for not attempting to escape mortal danger—or even murder. A jury will convict you of murder!”

“Listen to me,” he said. “This is dangerous business. I don’t want any bodies lying around, either. It attracts unnecessary attention. It’s one thing to have friends, but it’s another thing to explain corpses to those friends when the media smells fresh blood.” I stared at him. “Listen to me,” he said again. “It’s the French. The French! Oh, if only I had a better understanding of what was happening!”

“The French killed Mrs. Ciminelli?”

“No! The Russians!”

“The Russians? What? Why the French? What are you talking about?”

“No time!” he said. “Look alive with that pistol!”

I pulled out my .380 and prepared myself. I realized I’d never practiced firing a pistol at a moving target from a moving vehicle. “This is probably illegal,” I muttered.


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Sigegard Ainsworth, Chapter 10

Sigegard Ainsworth, Chapter 9


A mystery serial presented as a contemporary homage to Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot.

Chapter Nine: In which we reason our way through our shock, finding truth in fiction, and also finding a sinister self-evident truth about the murderers of Mrs. Ciminelli.

An excerpt:

“Liars and thieves,” Sige said. “And now murderers. That world is at once very true and also pure fiction. I wonder if there’s anything in that aesthetic which might be considered true: murderers born of lies and thievery. Would it be that such careful thieves created a logic within their lies which is not true, and yielded murder, such that Mrs. Ciminelli is no longer a real-life character? She now descends into the Hades of fiction, doesn’t she? A paragraph in the newspaper, and, even worse, a web page on a poorly-run funeral home website. She is the quickly fading figment of a few imaginations; whereas Sherlock Holmes is reinvigorated more than a century after his creator has set him free.”

“They’ve erred, you said,” I said.

“They have erred,” he replied. “She lied to them somehow, whether directly or by employing me—she signaled lies to them, and one of them—wait a second…” He paused and stared at me.

“What?”

He continued staring, but his eyes became blank, looking inward.

“You’re creeping me out,” I said, after a time.

“I’m such an idiot,” he said. “I’ve erred. They’ve erred and I’ve erred. Fortunately, I’ve erred in the realm of truth. They’ve erred in the realm of lies, and that’s just the break we were looking for.”

“It is?”

“Don’t you see it, John? Thievery and lies: it is their mode, how they exist—no, no, that will never do. It is their mode in that the world encounters them blinking on and off in their rhythm of lies. Does that make sense? If I, a denizen of the realm of truth, having so engaged and encountered them, immediately made them out as liars, clever as they were, wouldn’t it follow that other liars would discover them?”


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Sigegard Ainsworth, Chapter 9

Sigegard Ainsworth, Chapter 8


A mystery serial presented as a contemporary homage to Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot.

Chapter Eight: In which I inadvertently discover Sige’s conscience after Mrs. Ciminelli dies.

An excerpt:

“What are you talking about?” I said. “Your client is dead! I mean, now what?”

“The doctor has also already vaporized.”

“Vaporized?” I said. “How do you mean?”

“I suppose he also is dead or a long way from the arm of the American law,” Sige replied.

“I must admit that I’m terribly confused,” I said. “Just what in the devil happened?”

“Well, when they discovered that we discovered them, they decided the best course of action was to remove her in advance of her scheduled demise.”

My mouth gaped,[1] “You mean…”

“Yes,” Sige said, “She was scheduled for termination; that was the secondary reason for the weekly visits to the clinic: first, to get her away from her home so that they could examine it or dig on it or otherwise manipulate it or something within her view; second, to kill her when they were ready—I wasn’t going to allow it, of course. I never intended her to die—I never intended her to die, I mean.”

My blood ran cold, and I told him so.

He remarked, “This is the sort of thing into which I have involved myself. My usefulness to law enforcement is mainly a sort of preventive care, which, as you know, the Constitution forbids, and science fiction examines—”

I interrupted, “And anime.”

“Yes, and anime—you’re an anime connoisseur? Never mind that now. I have in this case failed my client, obviously, and law enforcement. Now my job, instead of intersecting with the police, now runs parallel to it, which I do not favor, but…” and he paused, searching for the word. “But circumstances now dictate.” He rubbed his forehead with the butt of the magnifying glass.

“Do you know why she was murdered?” I asked.

“Not a clue. That’s why I requested these maps. I am convinced it has something to do with what she possessed—and it seems like such a rushed error. They have committed an error of judgment, even after such careful planning. Why did they rush? Yet she texted me, revealing me to them.” He mused further, silently. “Throw me an apple, would you?” he asked. I did so. He continued, saying, “Yes, and revealing you to them, by extension. In a way, they have acted cleverly. But they are not from here, I do not think.”

I replied, “What makes you think that?”

[1] I still laugh when I recall the look on your face, as morbid as it may seem for me to do so. –SA.


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Sigegard Ainsworth, Chapter 8

Sigegard Ainsworth, Chapter 7


A mystery serial presented as a contemporary homage to Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot.

Chapter Seven: In which I encounter Johnny Law and we thereby learn that Sige has a formal relationship with state law enforcement.

An excerpt:

In a lovely baritone, and full of the plenipotentiary authority of the law itself, he intoned a few introductory passages, according to form, looked over my paperwork, then asked ineluctably, “Do you know why I’ve pulled you over?”

“Drinking and driving?” I proffered.

“What? No, I pulled you over for failing to signal,” he replied. His flashlight came into the car, and in a moment he had discovered the open case of Canadians and the empty bottle on the floorboard. A moment later he discovered that I was barefoot. “Wait here,” he said. He returned to his car while I waited according to his command.

The temptation to drink another beer began to take possession of me. I couldn’t believe my own will. I reached for the open case, felt for the next available bottle, and began to pull it out. “What’s wrong with you?” I said to myself. “What is wrong with you?

The trooper took his time getting back to me, which made the urge to pound another beer all the more…urgent, but I managed to suppress that which I did not want to do. Another police car arrived, parking in front of me. The first trooper then approached my car, saying, “You drank that beer coming out of the parking lot just now, right?”

“Yessir, I did.”

He followed up. “You know that’s illegal in the state of New York, right?”

“Yessir, I do.”

His flashlight re-entered the car. “You’re not wearing socks and shoes.”

“I’m in training, sir,” I blurted out.

“In training?”

“Yessir.”

“In training for what?”

I hesitated. I didn’t know how to answer that question, and I realized I wouldn’t know how to answer that question if I were being asked without being under the flashlight of the law.


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Sigegard Ainsworth, Chapter 7

Sigegard Ainsworth, Chapter 6


A mystery serial presented as a contemporary homage to Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot.

Chapter Six: in which Sige makes practical the case of ethics versus morals, causing a bit of a personal crisis.

An excerpt:

He finished my sentence nearly as I was formulating it, saying, “—to formulate a network of laws within a society in order to preserve the greater good. Indeed. If we don’t have laws like that, then truly dangerous drunks will murder with impunity, yes, yes. But I’m asking about you: where is your heart in the affair? In doing good or in doing right?”

The question had never been posed to me so directly, even though in this case it was something of a non-sequitur to the occasion. I suppose I had heard it as a question establishing a philosophical framework or in some random preacher’s homily, but no one had ever asked me personally whether I could put together the will to distinguish good from right; and knowing what the interlocutor meant, too. My life had been a series of exams and tests, especially lately, and the ones I had passed were the ones I could get right without much in the way of moral expenditure, the energy of wondering just what made those compliance questions on the securities exams a question of good versus evil in contradistinction to legal versus illegal. Ethics. Ethics overlapping what we all know is the right thing to do. Ethics overlaid on what we all know is the good thing to do. Since I didn’t know how to answer, I said as much, “I don’t know.”

Without another word, he continued driving.


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Sigegard Ainsworth, Chapter 6

Sigegard Ainsworth, Chapter 5


A mystery serial presented as an homage to Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot.

Chapter Five in which I commit myself to becoming Sige’s amanuensis and sidekick and we discover a shared loathing of craft beers.

An excerpt:

“By all means, eat,” he said.

“It’s just that…” I hesitated. “It’s just that I’ve been eating a lot of garbage for a while. Pizza is a luxury now, while my wife and kids stay with her parents.”

“At least tell me the garbage you’ve been eating is name brand.”

I hung my head. “Generic grocery store brand mini-raviolis, mainly.”

“Dear God,” he whispered. Suddenly, his head snapped to, and his eyes grew bright. “Let’s go get some beers. I’m buying.” With that, we were out the door into the frigid air, and I was only just getting one arm into my coat sleeve.

In the car, I shivered. Sige adjusted his light jacket so that it closed around the neck. “It is a bit chilly this evening,” he said. My teeth chattered as I tried to bury myself in my thick coat. “How is it,” he continued, “that you are tramping about in this atmosphere, yet you are not accustomed to it? You must train your body, John. You must train! Look at me: the coldest night of the year—granted we have no wind in here—the coldest night of the year, and I’m gripping this icy wheel with bare hands! Look at you: ach! We’ll make a man out of you. Many cold nights, damp nights, and many other discomforts await the one who assists me.”

He stopped the car, pulling it onto the shoulder. He looked at me. “Tell me,” he said. “Do you want to do this with me? Private detecting is legwork, legs, and arms, and torsos, and then time to think. Think, think, think: hydrolysis, as I like to say. Reading. Lots of reading.”

“Yes,” I said, without hesitating. “I do want to do this.”

“What will your in-laws say?”


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Sigegard Ainsworth, Chapter 5

Newton Jasper, the Family Cat, RIP

A Eulogy for a Cat


Although he was an extraordinarily stupid cat, he was a good kitty, after all.

It was apparent, eleven years ago, that we were finished having children. The two boys were growing and prospering in every way, and Deb was struggling with clinical depression of the worst sort: without medication she was sloth; with the medication, she was animated to do harm to herself. Recognizing these things, she decided to get a comfort animal, a kitty cat. I was opposed. I am not a cat person.

His name, you see, reflects a bit of tension in the marriage. Newton Jasper was my great grandfather’s name, and although there were seven grandsons to him, followed by two dozen great grandsons, none of them inherited his name, not that I know of. When our first came to pass, I was forbidden to name him so outrageously. I was, of course, offended. When the second came to pass, also a boy, I was compelled by my vocation to name him after myself and my father, an homage to the great Old Testament turnabout among the Patriarchs: the lesser receives the blessing.

And then the pause.

Deb went to the rescue shelter where there were two cats. One was perfectly ordinary. The other had two feet on each front leg. Polydactyl, is the word. Years later, we learned he shared the unambiguous honor of being known affectionately in the cat world as a Hemingway cat. Considering my wife’s condition, the cat’s condition, and Hemingway’s condition, the connection seems perfectly appropriate. And since we were having no more children, he was bequeathed the name of my great-grandfather: Newton Jasper. The other cat, the ordinary one, was going to be adopted without a doubt, and very soon, they had assured Deb. Therefore, the polydactyl cat with the brainless stare came home to us.

He loved us dearly.

Newton was the most sociable cat I have ever known. He purred gloriously if even you glanced toward him affectionately. He followed any and all through the house, prepared to glide, in that inimitable cat fashion, all over your body, demanding to show you affection interminably, granting, as a perpetual thanksgiving, his fur upon you.

He left his fur everywhere, upon every soft surface, all of which were his by adoption right, somehow. His claw marks are upon every door in the house because, according to his patrols, he must leave his fur upon that soft surface behind that door, be it carpeting, a bed, a throw pillow, a t-shirt left on the floor, your gloves, your hat, your scarf: all gifted in pure thanksgiving, in the only way a stupid cat can selflessly give.

There was one occasion, one of those which always comes to mind with regret, when he was following me through the house, demanding to pet me. I was sifting through some boards I had stored in the basement, and I think I was cursing, unhappily caring for my dear wife who could experience no joy, and whose medications had made things worse than they had made better. She was eating like a horse, and then sleeping like a log, and when she was awake, she was shouting at the top of her lungs that she would rather be dead. I had the two boys to care for, a few jobs to work in order to make money (this was after the crash of 2008 had caught me without a safety net, again, according to my vocation), and now this woman who was married to me but was not my wife. She was my patient. But who was giving care to me?

And so I was cursing, I’m sure, if not aloud, then in my heart, which held only curses at the time.

I heard a crash, a slight crash, the crash of the breaking of a beer bottle. Looking toward the sound to see what had transpired, I saw Newton, staring at me with those expressionless stupid green eyes, using my beer bottle collection as a slalom, and he had knocked one down. Filled with all the rage of all the past few years, all the failure, all the self-doubt, all the external injustice, as well as the frustration and nihilism and impotence welling up within me at all times, I struck him, and I struck him with all due force. I hoped to kill him.

I heard a hollow thunk resonate from his empty skull, and the damn thing looked at me, hurt, but unharmed, casting those vacant eyes upon the bottom of my soul. He could not fathom why I would say what I said and do what I did; nevertheless, he turned and hurried away. I cleaned up the broken glass and then threw out all the bottles, judging them to be a part of a juvenile futility. That night he did the same stupid thing he always did: he curled up and slept on my feet, which I hate, because my feet would overheat and I would awaken. So I kicked him off, not with any residual anger, just the usual discouraging, exaggerated shove from beneath the covers. He moved away a foot or two and resumed sleeping, as did I.

About five years ago, Deb started feeling better—not cured, but coping, one could say—she started feeling better without medication, so we decided to make more babies, hoping for a girl. Over the next three years, two more boys popped out in succession, but Newton Jasper the Family Cat already had the name of my great-grandfather, so we named the two new boys after Deb’s father and some grandmothers and aunts down the line, along with the name of a beloved deceased cousin: Walter Christian and Francis Daniel.

my birthday 004
Newton wishes me a happy 46th birthday.

We changed his food bowl, you see, from an old cereal bowl to a regular cat food bowl. He refused to eat. Before we knew it, he developed that liver thing such stupid cats develop, and he was a lost cause. Alas, cats. Alas, the world. It is all vanity. Death came to Newton Jasper, the Family Cat, bringing the comfort of that great sleep.

There is some debate among those who believe in Jesus, as I do, whether animals have a place at the wedding feast of the Lamb, which has no end. It is a debate out of pure ignorance, for the authoritative scripture of Christians is quite clear about animals. When it comes to judgment, God says to Jonah: “As for me, should I not pity Nineveh, the great city, where…a man doesn’t know his left hand from his right? And much cattle?”

Newton Jasper, the Family Cat, RIP