1 A Legacy of Smoke and Shadow: Prologue - The Briefing

This is Part 1 of what will be a multi-part story for the River 
of Mnemosyne Challenge on the Tenth Daughter of Memory.

How many parts? I have no idea (those muses never tell
me anything), but it won't be more than nine,  I promise.

Muse 1: A Legacy of Smoke and Shadow

Image by porbital

The Briefing

There’s no way of knowing, of course, but she was probably a normal enough child. If there were anyone left to ask, we might be able to find out. But there’s no one.

You might say that Mercedes Karpov is the very definition of an “orphan.” She is without a doubt the most alone person I’ve ever met, and in this business, I’ve come across a lot of people with no ties. That’s the nature of the beast, isn’t it?  This is not a life suited to someone with a family, after all. It’s no surprise that the first step into it is often taken as a result of abandonment. 

Mercedes’s story is a variation on the theme, though, because no one who left her life -- and they all did leave sooner or later -- did so voluntarily.

Mercedes had a brother she never knew. The boy died in infancy thirteen years before she was born. There were no other children until Mercedes came along. “My parents had given up on having another child," she once told me. "I suspect my arrival came as quite the surprise.”  One can’t help but wonder how having a sibling might have changed things for her. 

Mercedes’s mother Ella died a natural death – at least it was a natural death, as far as we know --  when the child was nine years old.  I was about to append “poor kid” on that, but it’s hard to apply that description to Mercedes. Still, I suspect she was devastated. What nine-year-old girl wouldn’t be at the loss of a parent, especially her mother. She actually uses the word “abandoned” when she speaks of her mother, which is rarely. Who knows, maybe that’s what put her on the path to becoming the woman she is today. Maybe. But a lot of children lose their mothers at a young age, and manage to grow up to become perfectly average people. And let’s face it. There’s nothing “average” about Mercedes Karpov.

After her mother’s death, her father remarried pretty quickly. It’s likely that he was “involved” with Laurene Louise Calhoun -- or Laurie Lou, as she called herself -- while Mercedes’s mother was still alive. Mercedes remembers lying in bed late at night listening to her parents fighting behind the closed door of their bedroom down the hall.  She was always afraid that one or the other was going to leave. And soon after, one did, just not the way Mercedes feared.

Barely two months had passed after Ella’s death when her dad announced he had married the former Georgia beauty pageant winner. At that point, many years  had passed since Laurie Lou removed the rhinestone crown from her head and the “Flower of Savannah” banner from across her ample bosom, but she was still an attractive woman who knew how to use her feminine wiles. She’d come  to New York to be a Rockette and was still waiting to be discovered. She had been working at Macy's until she "got a break."  That's where Mercedes' father fell under her spell.

Laurie Lou considered herself a "southern belle," and was accomplished in acting the part. I'm sure playing the step-mother was not a role she'd aspired to, and she let Mercedes know it in no uncertain terms. The girl responded by wearing her considerable willfulness like a badge of honor. Not surprisingly, Laurie Lou and Mercedes didn't take to each other, and the marriage was destined to fail right from the get-go. In fact, Laurene Louise Calhoun was just the first of several step- mothers to pass though Mercedes’s life, and none had any staying power.

No, near as we can tell, her father was the only constant in Mercedes’s early life and a sorry one he was, at that.  He didn’t offer much positive influence, by all accounts. He was well into his forties when she was born, and hardly suited to be a parent. Mercedes said he’d often told her he was “too old to be a father." It was a sorry excuse for bad behavior and neglect, and I'm sure Mercedes knew it, but she loved her “baba,” as she called him, all the same.

There aren’t many people still around who knew him either, since anyone he might have called “friend” is long gone. But we managed to find a few who knew him on the job, and who were young enough at the time to still be among the living.  Unfortunately, most of the men we were able to locate were spending their last days in nursing homes and couldn’t remember what they had for breakfast, let alone someone they knew so long ago.

But some were still pretty sharp, and they knew him as well as anyone did. Or thought they did, anyway.  They all remembered him as a sot.

“Oh, sure, I remember Phil. A lush, I’d have to say. Drank on the job, you know, and was frequently into his cups by ten o’clock in the morning. ‘Sun’s over the yardarm somewhere in the world,’ he’d say as he tossed back three fingers of straight vodka like it was water. Gives me the shudders to think about it even now.”

“He was a drunk, pure and simple. Hard to blame him, though. He had real bad luck when it came to women. It’d be enough to drive any guy to the bottle. I gotta tell you, though, that second wife of his might have been an airhead but, wowie boy, she was a looker, alright.”

“I figure old Phil was one of them fellas you’d call ‘a working alcoholic.’ Hit on that bottle he kept in his glove box all day, Phil did. Never slowed him down none, though. In fact, sometimes I thought it was the only thing that kept him going.”

“Phil? Yeah, I knew him. Didn’t like him much, I can tell you that. All happy-go-lucky on the face of it, but I always thought there was something -- I dunno, ‘off,’ maybe -- about the guy. I mean, Jesus H. Christ, he was a drunk and everybody knew it. So, how’s a drunk keep his job on the force? You tell me that.”

"Phil was a drunk, all right. But he sure loved that little girl of his. When he wasn’t on duty, he took her everywhere with him, even to his favorite watering holes. Didn’t do her any favors, if you ask me.”

Yes, we know he was a New York City cop. That’s all well documented, but as we also know now, his personnel jacket is pretty much woven out of whole cloth. There’s not much else we know about Phil Brin except that Phil Brin wasn’t his real name.  It wasn’t until he was dead and buried that we learned even that. Grigori Karpov managed to keep his identity hidden for decades.

I suspect that the ability to get lost in the smoke and shadows is one of the most valuable lessons Mercedes Karpov learned at her baba’s knee. That and how to hold her liquor. And oh, yeah, he probably taught her how to shoot too. She learned that lesson well.  And we were only too happy to take advantage of all those skills, weren’t we?

We shouldn’t be surprised now. We bear as much responsibility in this as anyone. And it's up to us to fix it. Mercedes Karpov has been abandoned by just about everyone in her life. I'll be damned if we're going to join the crowd.

Continued in Part 2: Pride and Extreme Prejudice


  1. Well, well, well... there are so MANY places you can go with this one. I can't wait to read the next (and the next and next) installment...

  2. More, please? This is gonna be good.

  3. ooo very nice opening chapter...and did i see another one up already...seriously two in one day? wow...

  4. Hmm, I wonder where this going? Off to nice mysterious start!

  5. off to "a" nice start, that is! Impatient one that I am; I need to slow down before I publish my comments:).

  6. One thing I know about this story is that more is coming--and I gladly anticipate that. Thank you, Patti!
    PEACE (to you and Mercedes!)

  7. good start Patti. keep em coming

  8. Oh melikes so far! I love the detail of your character's backgrounds. Wish I could create like that. Type "I suspect my arrival came as a quite the surprise"

  9. Duhn duhn dahn!

    Nice open. Has a filmic monologue quality to it.


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