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The Curse of
Charlotte Dexter Ford
Albert J. Manachino
Copyright ©2001 by Albert J. Manachino

Mr. Stuart Falcon James, magician and exorcist extraordinaire, was at peace with the world. His feet ached but he was happy. Could he have foreseen what would transpire from the mere act of pausing to rest, he would have fled screaming and would have continued to run the remainder of the night - aching feet or no. As it was, precognition failed him.

Soft amber street lighting was reflected by pampered, shrubbery nesting in expensively coiffured lawns. Subdued illumination from a number of buildings added to the restful evening scene. Every street lamp invited strollers to sit on the authentic metal reproductions of colonial park benches ensconced in their circles of light.

Placing his briefcase beside him, Mr. James accepted the invitation. He sat. A mantle of perfect peace and well-being descended upon him. Stuart inhaled deeply of a delicious evening breeze redolent with the scents of fragrant flowers and freshly mowed grasses.

He studied his tired, aching feet. An eyelid moved the barest fraction of an inch in a whimsical suggestion of a wink.

"Woof!" his left foot barked.

"Arf! Arf!" the other responded.

Mr. James smiled as if he was enjoying a secret joke.

"I... er... excuse me." The speaker, a young woman in her late twenties or early thirties, shook her head. Evidently she had come upon him while he was absorbed in the dialogue between his feet. Worse - she had overheard it. "I thought I... of course not! I only imagined it..."

Mr. James looked up but said nothing. She repudiated her confusion by taking a deep breath.

"You must be one of Polly Longstreet's boys," she said.

Stuart had never heard of Polly Longstreet.

"No," he replied. "Any family resemblance there may be is purely coincidental."

The young lady either did not hear or did not believe him.

"You're cute. I hear she employs only the best talent."

"That is a very sound business policy," he observed sagely.

"Are you boys as good as I've heard you are?"

Stuart assumed, correctly, she was firmly convinced he was one of Ms. Longstreet's employees and that any denials he made would not be believed.

He said, "Not being acquainted with the lady or knowing what you have in mind, I'm un..."

"You know what I have in mind," she interrupted mysteriously. He didn't. "You must be new, I don't remember you."

"Practically a stranger," he conceded. "I've never done..."

He did not get the opportunity to reveal what it was he'd 'never done'.

"Couldn't you find work?"

"I wasn't looking for work. I'm self-employed."

"Most of you are."

Figuratively, he threw his arms into the air. Stuart felt the conversation rising above his ability to cope. She sat beside him. The street light emphasised his earlier impression. Not a bad looking woman at all - well endowed in the proper places but not soft - far from it. Something about her brought to mind cover girls on the female athlete magazine. Stuart resolved to be circumspect.

"I don't understand how you know about me," he said. "We've never met, have we, Miss...?"

"I'm Charlotte Dexter Ford." She stressed the name as if it should have held a special significance for him. "What do they call you? Big Bruce? Long John?"

He abandoned his impression that mutual friends might have pointed him out to her.

"I'm Stuart James. Perhaps you know me by reputation."

"All you fellows have reputations. You mean to say you really haven't heard of me?" She sounded surprised if not actually slighted.

He apologised. "Sorry... I'm practically a stranger. I don't know anything about you. I'm sure it's been my loss," he added gallantly.

"I'd certainly like to know you better." Her meaning would have been unmistakable to anyone else.

"But, of course," he struggled on densely. "I'm sure that can be arranged. A nice dinner... a good show..."

Stuart thought he detected a note of sympathy in Charlotte's response. "You're class. I can tell from the way you talk. I'm sorry you've fallen so low."

Her words robbed him of a riposte and left him semantically disoriented.

"So low?" he echoed wonderingly.

Her voice now was an accusing one, it brooked no nonsense.

"You've been soliciting, haven't you?"

The conversation by now had ballooned over his head, out of reach of any sensible interpretation he could apply to it. But he saw no reason to conceal his activities.

"I have been soliciting, yes! That was the whole purpose of my visit."

Stuart had been soliciting. His briefcase bulged with twenty thousand dollars in cash and pledges from friends and acquaintances. The money was earmarked for a children's' hospital.

"If you wish..." He stopped, not knowing how to continue.

She would have interrupted anyhow. "How much do you charge?"

"Generally, it isn't thought of as a 'charge'. Whatever you wish to give."

"You mean, as much as the traffic will bear."

"In a manner of speaking, yes, though I'd scarcely phrase it like that. Be as generous as you can."

"Will fifty dollars be enough?"

"Of course."

Stuart reached for the pledge book and receipts in his briefcase. Again he experienced a nagging sensation that something was not quite right. In Einstein or Beethoven such inspiration would have been attributed to genius. In Stuart, it would have been regarded as wayward fancy.

"You're sure fifty dollars is enough?" she insisted. "In these days of inflation, it doesn't seem like very much."

"Oh yes, I'm happy to receive any amount."

His words evoked a response beyond his ability to interpret.

"Oh, you still do it partly for fun?"

Stuart groped futilely for a response. His hand paused on the zipper of the briefcase. Finally he said, "I suppose you could say that. It makes me feel good inside so to speak."

"I imagine you've made a lot of girls feel good inside." She rose. "Come on."

Confusion was added to confusion. Stuart felt that he was about to embark on well clouded waters.

"Don't you want to do it here?"

For the first time, she appeared disconcerted. "Here? In public? My God! What would people say?"

"How would they know what we were doing?"

It was her turn to grope for a reply. "How would they know what we were doing? It would be very obvious to me." She started to walk away. "Come on, what are you waiting for?"

Something within, told Stuart that now was the time to run. Instead he stood and reluctantly fell into step beside her.

"I have a nice little place," she told him. A few minutes later she stopped in front of an all - night drug store and excused herself.

"I just remembered a call I should have made." She went inside.

"Run, you nincompoop," his survival instinct urged.

Stuart ignored the best advice he had ever received.

* * * * *

Charlotte's "place" seemed antiseptic to him. Three tiny rooms were blended into one by waist high partitions instead of walls. A neat but austere bed reminded Stuart of his navy dormitory. A chest of drawers, a night table with a telephone on it and a closet comprised the furnishings of the bedroom. A table that was no larger than a chess board, two chairs and a party sized coffee maker seemed to be the only movable furniture in a kitchenette that was not much larger than a public telephone booth.

Charlotte invited him to make himself comfortable and then proceeded to undress. She had reached a pair of bikini panties that matched the apartment in spirit before she noticed he hadn't moved. "Aren't you going to take your clothes off?"

His briefcase plummeted to the floor leaving his left hand holding empty air at his side.

He managed to say, "I generally conduct business fully dressed..."

"You certainly are different. C'mon now," she sounded impatient, "Strip or no fifty bucks."

Charlotte was as muscular as Stuart's earlier impression of her had implied. A modest pair of breasts thrust outward and fought to remain conspicuous against an expanse of, perhaps, overly developed chest. They looked like two ice cream cones silhouetted against the horizon of an endless glacier. Her biceps spoke eloquently of many hours in gymnasiums. The bikini struck the floor.

There is a time in everyone's life, and Stuart proved it then, when surprise is so sudden, so complete, so overwhelming that the mind refuses to function in formulating a defence against whatever caused the surprise. He stripped.

She inspected him with an evident though grudging approval. "Hmm! Polly really does have the best."

Far away he heard his voice deny feebly, "I don't know Ms. Longstreet."

Charlotte displayed the fifty dollars in one hand and motioned him to bed with the other. "Come on, handsome, it's time you performed."

At the moment, Stuart would have been incapable of filling out one of his own receipt forms had his lawyer been present to explain how and a notary public to guide his hand. Her fingers closed around his penis. She pulled him to the bed. Immediately he sustained an erection which proved that at least one of his heads was still capable of functioning.

She lay naked on the bed and beckoned invitingly with the fifty dollars. Dazed, Stuart reached. The closet door behind him opened and a uniformed police sergeant stepped out. From some improbable hiding place, Charlotte produced a badge.

"Vice squad. You're under arrest for prostitution."

The sergeant motioned with his handcuffs. "Want me to snap them on him?"

She refused. "It isn't necessary. I can handle him with one arm. Call for the station wagon."

Stuart had frozen into a posture reminiscent of Mercury delivering a message. One foot remained on the floor while the other was slightly elevated in a forward direction. His empty hand still reached for the money. Both eyes were glazed but Stuart's mind again was beginning to function. He understood now the drugstore stop; she'd alerted the sergeant that they were on the way.

He noticed Stuart's empty hand. Drama affects people in different ways. Charlotte had dropped the money before Stuart was able to accept it.

The sergeant swore. "Damn it! Now we ain't got no evidence."

She defended herself. "You didn't give him a chance to take it."

"I couldn't see that well from the closet." Reaching for the telephone, he dialled the precinct and explained. In two minutes the sergeant hung up.

"We wasted a whole evening," he said. "No night court. Judge Horne ain't feeling well and went home."

"Well, let's book this guy anyway and throw him into the tank until Monday."

"Can't do it," he explained. "The tank is full. Captain Smith says no more bums, drunks or whores for the weekend."

"You have no evidence," Stuart reminded him. He should have kept quiet.

His statement was accepted as a challenge by the sergeant. He pointed to Stuart's miraculously retained erection.

"Judge Home will accept that in lieu of the marked bills." He looked at Charlotte. "It's up to you to see he maintains it."

She was seized by panic. "My God! This is Friday. You must be out of your mind."

Her response rankled.

"I got my orders and you have yours. Carry them out." He turned to leave.

Hurriedly, she stopped him. "Look! There's no big deal. Make this guy post a big bail and turn him loose. I'll see to it he's in court in full bloom come Monday."

Sadism, aroused by the failure and a general dislike of women police officers in general broke through to the surface.

"No good! That's false evidence. He has to appear before the judge with this one."

"That's impossible," she protested in a frightened voice. "How can he keep it hard that long?"

"I'll leave it up to your ingenuity." He smiled sardonically as he suggested, "A soft brush and a can of shellac..." The door closed behind him.

Left alone, two naked people surveyed each other warily. Charlotte seized the bull by the horns.

"I don't believe in coddling criminals," she spoke firmly and decisively as she ordered, "Keep that thing erect or I'll rap you with obstruction of justice."

"Keeping it hard is your job," he argued. "The constitution specifically prohibits self - incrimination." He added righteously, "I refuse to assist you in evidence tampering."

As if to defy her, the erection began to slump. Charlotte could have sworn that it yawned. Frantically she reached into her purse for the service revolver she always carried.

"Get it up," she ordered, aiming wildly at the penis. "or I'll pull the trigger." He heard the safety catch slide off.

His penis reached for the ceiling so quickly that he was almost yanked off his feet. Beads of worry perspiration formed on its head.

"Police officers shouldn't panic," Stuart lectured her as he cupped his aching testicles. "We are going to be together all weekend and I hope we'll make the best of it. It's past my bedtime."

She stopped him before he reached the bed. "No you don't! I don't sleep, you don't sleep!"

"But my dear Officer Ford, it's up to you to maintain the evidence in a legally acceptable condition." His voice was serious as he suggested, "Perhaps a cup of strong black coffee?"

Stuart had meant the coffee for himself but Charlotte misinterpreted the suggestion. Timidly, she held a steaming cup to his penis.

"Come on, damn you! Drink!"

Erect, it was obviously at the wrong angle. He noted her baffled expression.

"It isn't used to eating and drinking standing up."

"Don't be funny. Get down on all fours and make him stick his head inside the cup."

Stuart refused. "Perhaps a funnel...?"

She gritted her teeth. "All right, be stubborn. I'll spoon feed it." It did not occur to Charlotte that she was losing her mind.

She was as good as her word. A spoon trembled in one hand as she held it to the slit. A couple of drops spilled onto the corona. The penis yelled. Charlotte dropped both spoon and cup. The half-wall stopped her backwards lurch. She listened in horror as Stuart towelled the penis with an undershirt.

"What's the matter, old fellow? Too hot?"

"No," it responded. "Too sweet."

Her face was drained of colour and her eyes mirrored hysteria. "Oh, I get it," Charlotte whispered hoarsely, "you're a ventriloquist." She laughed wildly.

Stuart said nothing to disillusion her. He offered the penis more coffee.

"No thanks, I'm full."

"Stop it!" she screamed.

"When is this nonsense going to stop?"

"Not until you've faced Judge Horne. She'll teach you a thing or two."

Stuart surrendered to compassion. He honestly felt sorry for Charlotte. Perhaps overzealous, perhaps misguided, he believed she was sincerely attempting to fulfil an onerous obligation imposed on her by occupational choice. The fact Charlotte might be slightly dense never entered into his thoughts.

"Why don't you catch a few winks of sleep?" he suggested kindly. "You're tired and becoming irrational." He could have put her to sleep merely by wishing it but Stuart was a believer in freedom of choice. He left the decision to her. Nor did she disappoint him.

"Oh, no! Once I close my eyes..."

"I promise. The evidence will be here when you wake up."

"I can't accept the word of a criminal."

His testicles crossed themselves indignantly at the base of his erection. "Mr. James is a man of honour," the penis said in defence of his character.

Charlotte made a noise. It sounded suspiciously like those heard in an asylum when the moon is full. James slapped her.

He immediately apologised. "I'm sorry. You are on the verge of hysteria."

Charlotte sobbed. "I wouldn't be if you stopped doing things like that." Her mouth trembled, she seemed on the brink of tears.

"I would be more than human if I didn't express my resentment in some way."

He took her face in his hands and kissed her tenderly. For a moment she softened, her arms went about his neck. Abruptly, she sprang back.

"No, you don't. You aren't going to suborn me. Guys like you never give gals like me a second look."

He shrugged in resignation. It became a war of attrition between Charlotte and the penis. James watched as if a spectator on the sidelines. She dared not sleep for she considered that an invitation for him to disappear. Nor could she dress for she had to remain an erotic invitation. The vigil became doubly difficult for her as he had lost whatever initial interest she had aroused in him.

Just to make conversation, he asked, many hours later, "What is the usual penalty your Judge Horne imposes in cases like this?"

She spoke falteringly. "Judge Horne... I don't think there's ever been another case like this. A fine of some sort, I suppose or maybe ten days in jail with time off for good behaviour if the jail is crowded."

Charlotte lapsed into that state between consciousness and unconsciousness. He assumed an expression of pity. To help pass the time, the penis sang opera, whistled, and recited limericks.

The miracle that was Monday finally arrived. To Charlotte it seemed to have taken as long in coming as the second resurrection. She trembled pitifully, an overdose of strong black coffee and caffeine tablets had taken their toll. Toward the end, it was only by supporting herself on the head of Stuart's penis, as if it was a cane, that she was able to stand. Her eyes resembled two freshly picked cranberries.

Judge Horne reminded Stuart of an elderly female owl unexpectedly trapped in broad daylight. Her eyelids looked like two half drawn shades.

"What is the charge?" she demanded without looking at the transcript on her bench.

"Please, Your Honour," Charlotte ventured timidly. She pointed at Stuart. "He made his penis sing all weekend."

She stared at Charlotte with an expression singularly devoid of warmth. "I've heard of a cock crowing at dawn but I've never heard of one that sang all weekend. The next thing you'll be telling me is that it recited limericks." She picked up the transcript and studied it carefully.

"Umm! Male prostitute. How do you plead, young man?"

Stuart stood before the bar of justice clad only in a terry cloth robe, slippers and an outraged dignity. "Innocent, Your Honour."

She set the paper down." Come now, you've admitted to Officer Ford that you were soliciting."

"But..." He was not permitted to explain.

"Why not plead guilty?" she urged. "A mere hundred dollar fine which I'm sure you can recoup in a couple of hours...?" A stubborn silence from the prisoner. She sighed. "Very well, the trial will proceed."

Charlotte spoke up. "He's one of Polly Longstreet's boys."

Again the judge embraced her in a glance that could only be described as frigid. "I sincerely doubt it. Polly is always here to supply bail or pay her boys' fines." Her eyes searched the courtroom. "I don't see her, do you?"

"Oh...! Maybe she doesn't know?"

"Examine the courtroom, Officer Ford. Let me know if you seriously think anyone in town doesn't know."

Spectators jammed the room in a living wall-to-wall carpet. More perched in windows or congested the doorways. Her honour resumed.

"It is my understanding the defendant had not actually accepted his fee before the sergeant interrupted. Is there any evidence to substantiate your charges?"

"Open your robe," Charlotte ordered Stuart.

He refused.

"Come now, young man, why the maidenly modesty? What could you possibly be concealing my four husbands did not exhibit to me at one time or another? Three of whom are in jail," she added with satisfaction.

"The robe," Charlotte repeated grimly.

"I plead self-incrimination, Your Honour."

"Please, young man... Mr. James, is it? We aren't asking you to make a speech... merely display the evidence. Comply with Officer Ford's request."

Stuart flung his robe open with both hands in the fine, traditional technique of the master flasher. Her Honour blinked.

"Now that is what I call ample evidence. The hearing will continue."

Stuart secured the robe about himself. Judge Horne frowned at the court attendants and spectators who had gradually surrounded the bench in a tightly closed circle.

"In the interests of decorum and orderly procedure, I must request you all to return to your seats and stations or the courtroom will be cleared." She rapped the bench significantly with her gavel. Reluctantly the spectators melted back. She returned to Stuart.

"I'll give you another opportunity to plead guilty... a mere fifty dollar fine... which I am sure you can earn back in an hour or so..."

"I'm innocent, Your Honour."

"Enter the defendant's plea," she instructed the court stenographer in a tired voice. "Read back to me that portion of the transcript just prior to the interruption."

The recorder, a plain young lady of subdued mien and dress abruptly returned to life. She reddened. "Oh, my goodness, Your Honour, I completely forgot to write."

"Please do so now. The defendant pleads 'not guilty'."

She wrote furiously as if attempting to make up for her dereliction.

"You see the effect you are having on my court, Mr. James? Please," she begged, "a twenty dollar fine which you can recoup in a few minutes."

"I am not guilty of anything," he insisted.

"All right," she said wearily, "we'll try again." She poured water into a glass and surreptitiously searched the bench for aspirin. "Officer Ford, please recite everything that occurred between you and the defendant from the moment of the sergeant's leaving."

"Everything?"

"Yes, everything. I want to hear every grubby, sordid detail." A snoring ensued from under Stuart's robe. Her Honor almost dropped the glass. "What's that!"

"He's a ventriloquist," Charlotte explained.

Her face cleared. "Ah, I understand. I'd be tired too if I'd been up all weekend. It's refreshing to encounter a young man with a sense of humour. They all seem to be so dedicated to material pursuits these days."

Charlotte began. Ten minutes later, Judge Horne interrupted.

"I greatly fear that I must recess this trial until after the sheriffs and bailiffs have cleared the courtroom." They were once again tightly hemmed in by a ring of spectators anxious not to miss a single word. "And," she added to her officials, "take the rest of the day off for yourselves after you've cleared the court and locked the doors."

The trial resumed an hour later. She complimented Charlotte for her dedication and unswerving devotion to duty.

"You are a credit to the force and an inspiration to other law officers. I'm sure that decent, law abiding citizens will sleep more soundly knowing there are officers like you safeguarding the streets."

Stuart examined her speech for traces of tongue-in-cheek without detecting any. Charlotte smiled proudly. Judge Horne waved another paper.

"Expenses of this trial, courtroom and administrative costs, police overtime, apartment rental, food and miscellaneous costs will total eleven thousand dollars. But," she permitted a note of satisfaction to creep into her voice, "justice has once again prevailed and that is the overriding consideration." She addressed Charlotte. "I have a state department friend. He informed me that Romapianti officials have approached him with respect to obtaining instructions to teach their law enforcement agencies American police procedures. I'm certain I could persuade him to seriously consider your qualifications." Judge Horne looked hopefully at Charlotte.

"But, your Honour, isn't Romapianti that small European country with a mafia government?"

The judge appeared to reflect. "I do believe you're right. I take it you are not interested? No? Ah well..."

She sighed philosophically before returning to Stuart. "I can't say I've wated time. Rarely has a case so absorbing and one with such deep implications as this one appeared before me. But, why not compromise? A ten dollar fine...? Five dollars...?" She bargained hopefully.

Charlotte produced a crumbled five dollar bill and pressed it into Stuart's hand.

"For goodness sake! Plead guilty! I'll pay your fine."

"Wonderful!" Her Honor beamed. "I knew you were amenable to reason." Judge Horne gave Stuart no time to refuse. "You are hereby fined five dollars and warned that a repetition will bring serious consequences upon yourself. Take Mr James to the Clerk of the Court," she added hurriedly.

Officer Ford sped James away. Her Honor addressed the empty courtroon. "Never let it be said that criminals who appear before this bench are awarded a mere symbolic wrist slap."

The End

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