Chapter 1: The Most Painful Word
Mel’s loneliness amidst the holiday glitter can break your heart.
My heart is empty,
My soul in shreds,
The most painful word
"Only The Lonely"
Mel looked at himself in the full-length mirror attached to the inside of his bedroom door.
His Confederate gray uniform was crisp and impeccably-tailored, the high collar stiff as his hair brushed it. In the style of the 1860s, he had foregone his usual pomade, his jet-black hair fuller and softer. He really should have a mustache or beard but decided that the mask he was going to wear along with his longer hair was enough disguise, even if not exactly authentic.
His boots were polished, and his gray hat was on the bureau. He carefully affixed the ceremonial sword to his belt in its scabbard. Handed down in his family, it was the perfect touch to finish off the uniform of General Maycomb Purvis, Defender of Charleston and Hero of the Battle of Chickamauga.
Quite a legacy to live up to.
Mel sighed. When he had received the invitation to this Halloween party, his first instinct had been to refuse, but then some tickle in his mind had caused him to change it.
As he looked at his reflection, he wondered if he was worthy of this uniform. His career…fuck that, his life was in shambles, and had been for the past year.
It was fifteen months since that awful night at the Biograph.
If only I’d done more…
But he’d been watched too closely. He couldn’t even send a note to Johnny inside the theater. His own men and the Chicago policemen were watching him like hawks.
His right hand curled up into a fist, trying to quell his shaking.
He had spent two weeks after a botched raid in a snowbound cabin with John Dillinger and had fallen hard. The charming robber had whispered, “Come with me,” but he had returned to his duty.
He’d regretted it every day since.
Especially since the Biograph.
He had barely looked at the body sprawled in the alley. The night had been sheer hell, the waiting, the worrying, trying to figure out a way to let Johnny slip away, the fear clutching at his heart, trying desperately to get to Johnny, arrest him before his men opened fire…
Always too late.
And now he had to live the rest of his life with the cold, hard knot of regret deep in his heart.
He put the dove-gray domino mask on, his eyes a mask of pain.
& & & & & &
Mel drove his Buick to the Silver Springs estate of Perle Mesta, grande dame of Washington society. Expensive cars were already being driven away by valets, keeping the circular driveway clear.
Mel reluctantly handed over the keys. He loved this car and hoped it would be scratch-free when he got it back.
The exterior of the mansion was tastefully decorated with strings of autumn leaves entwined around the marble columns, and Jack O’Lanterns with flickering candles lined the veranda.
Mel was greeted at the front door by the Negro butler, who directed him to the ballroom.
Inside, the foyer was swathed in orange-and-black, the chandelier at its lowest setting to give the entrance a spooky atmosphere. He had to admit that Mrs. Mesta knew her stuff.
He walked down the corridor, the sound of orchestra music spilling out from the ballroom.
It was a grand ballroom, high-ceilinged and with tall windows looking out over the grounds. The ballroom was decorated in orange-and-black, the ubiquitous Jack O’Lanterns on the buffet tables against the wall. An orchestra played at the far end, costumed partiers already dancing.
Mel wandered through the room, noting the variety of costumes: two cowboys, an Indian, two princesses, three Witches, an inventive Alice In Wonderland, a dancing girl, a Union soldier, two vampires, and many others.
He hoped that Hoover wasn’t at this party. His relationship with his boss was fairly rocky right now.
The buffet was well-stocked: turkey, ham, and chicken at a carving station, chefs at the ready, salads with fresh lettuce and vegetables, whipped potatoes with dill, Swedish meatballs, and baked beans with onions. There was cranberry relish and pickles and cheeses of all kinds, and candy corn, sliced apples sprinkled with cinnamon, pumpkin muffins, and pumpkin pudding with delicate whipped cream and chocolate shavings sprinkled on top.
Mel chose turkey, salad, and sliced apples. The cinnamon tickled his tongue, and he remembered eating apples found in a cupboard in that snowbound cabin.
“I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, whiskey… and you. What else you need to know?” Johnny asked with a sparkle in his eyes and a smirk on his face.
Mel finished his meal and picked up a glass of apple cider and a pumpkin muffin.
“Some party, huh?” asked a Witch in traditional black, the cone of her pointed hat slightly bent. Her domino mask glittered as she smiled, shoulder-length blond hair streaked with silver streamers.
“A fine one.”
“Oh, that’s clever, adding the Southern accent to go with the costume.”
“Mmm, the food’s really good. And I’m glad Perle chose this orchestra. I know Sammy, the band leader, and he’s got a good group.” She tapped her pointy shoe in time with the music. “Hey, that’s One O’Clock Jump!”
“Would you care to…?”
“Oh, there’s my boyfriend!” She waved and dashed off, her dress fluttering behind her.
Mel moved away from the buffet, skirting the edge of the dance floor. He had come alone to this party because he wasn’t currently dating anyone.
He wasn’t sure if he would ever date anyone again.
A sense of melancholy washed over him. Finishing the spiced pumpkin muffin, he drifted out to the balcony.
The stars shone in the clear night sky, a light breeze blowing. It was a crisp night, neither a snowy winter evening or a steamy summer night, memories of times like that sweet and bitter.
The snowy evenings had brought him happiness.
The steamy summer night had been the worst night of his life.
With a shaky hand he wiped away a tear, the old, familiar sense of melancholy settling into the pit of his stomach.
A sound turned his head. A partygoer dressed in forest green tights and jerkin was standing by an arborvitae bush at the edge of the balcony, the music from the ballroom muted as it drifted through the night.
The man had a good body, able to pull off wearing such a costume. A green cap set jauntily on his head, his green domino mask set with white lenses, obscuring his eyes.
The man gestured, silently asking if he could join him. Mel nodded. His sense of loneliness was too heavy to bear tonight. He could do with the company.
The man leaned on the balustrade next to Mel. Blond hair was tucked up under his cap, a faint scar running along one cheek. A light-green feather was stuck in his cap, and a quiver of arrows was strapped to his back.
“Robin Hood?” Mel guessed.
The man nodded. He cocked his head in inquiry.
“Oh, just a Southern gentleman serving the Cause,” Mel drawled.
Robin hid his smile with a gloved hand.
“So you rob the rich and give to the poor?” Mel asked and nearly gasped at the pain that innocent question tore from him.
Robin nodded, tipping his feathered cap jauntily.
Mel couldn’t help but smile, trying to push down the pain.
Robin’s silence didn’t bother him. Some men were not talkative, which Mel could understand. He wasn’t much of a talker, either, and didn’t feel much like it tonight.
Instead, he closed his eyes and let the cool night air caress his skin, remembering other caresses that would haunt him the rest of his life.
He bit back on a sob. Haunted! How appropriate on this night of nights.
A gentle hand rested on his arm, and he opened his eyes to look at his concerned companion.
“I’m sorry,” he said, a trifle embarrassed. He wondered what had happened to his emotional control this past year. He had clamped down savagely on his emotions that night at the Biograph, almost robotic in his speech and expressions. Perhaps he had damaged his control for the future.
The hand gently squeezed his arm, and Mel felt the ache in his chest lessen slightly.
“It’s a beautiful night. I…remember other star-strewn nights.”
He looked down at the marble balustrade, trying to blink away sudden tears.
“Oh, Mel, honey.”
Mel’s head snapped up, hazel eyes wide.
Chapter 2: Whispering On The Wind
Halloween magic is a beautiful thing.
Miracles do happen,
Especially on a night
Robin removed his mask, familiar amber eyes looking at him with concern…and love.
Mel stared, taking in the sight of the beloved face, suddenly feeling lightheaded, a buzzing in his ears as the shock went cold down his spine.
He staggered back. “I saw your body,” he murmured. “Are…are you haunting me?”
Johnny…the ghost…reached out and grabbed his arm.
“I’m real, darlin’.”
It was Johnny’s voice, the way he used endearments, concern in his eyes.
“J…Johnny, I saw you die!”
The hand on Mel’s arm was warm. He’d removed his glove. A familiar signet ring was on his finger.
“Come with me,” the apparition said.
Numbed with shock, Mel went with him on shaky legs.
They walked down the balcony steps into the garden, the apparition leading him down the path to a small arboreal alcove out of sight from the house, his hand on Mel’s back protectively.
Johnny sat on the marble bench, bringing Mel down with him, removing the shocked man’s mask.
“You’re shaking, darlin’.” Mel stared with big, luminous eyes. “I know this is a shock.”
Mel tried to speak. “How…what…?”
“Well, Sunshine, I guess it’s obvious it wasn’t me at the Biograph.” His thumb rubbed over Mel’s hand. “You see, Anna told me about the squeeze that Immigration was putting on her. She warned me to get away, which I did, of course, and then I heard about what’d happened on the radio. I’ll admit I was puzzled, but learned the whole story weeks later from a mutual acquaintance. You see, a small-time hood named Jimmy Lawrence looked a lot like me, and Anna arranged for him to take my place.”
“But…” Mel’s heart was racing, still unable to process everything.
“I don’t know how Anna persuaded Jimmy to play me. Poor soul got killed for his trouble, and I don’t know if your Mr. Hoover knows the truth.”
“He’s not my Mr. Hoover.” Mel was still shaking. “I should have checked out the body…I couldn’t bear to see you…I’m sorry, Johnny.”
“Don’t be.” Johnny’s expression was soft. “It’s understandable. Why would you dream up something like this?” He bit his lip. “And I’m sorry, too. I had to wait this long before I could come for you.”
Mel flung his arms around Johnny, who laughed and hugged him. A kiss came next as Mel hungrily put his mouth to Johnny’s, nearly dizzy with joy.
Mel hung on for dear life, passionately kissing Johnny as if still trying to reassure himself that his love wasn’t a ghost. Johnny kissed back just as enthusiastically.
When they finally came up for air, Johnny said, “Come away with me, Sunshine.”
Mel blinked, still gripping Johnny’s arms. “Come away with you?”
“That’s right, darlin’. Life isn’t as much fun without you, Mel.”
Mel thought of his career, already teetering on the edge, the loneliness of his life, all the regrets that had nearly been choking him for over a year, opportunities lost…
“Yes,” he breathed. “I’ll go away with you, Johnny.”
Johnny’s eyes lit up, moonlight shimmering down and silvering his face as he pulled Mel into a kiss, the night breeze stirring up fallen leaves, whispering through the trees.
“Wow, Robin Hood. You and General Lee here are really having a good time.”
Mel pulled back in shock, Johnny surprised, too. A tall princess in pink was smiling down at them, her tall conical hat perched on a cloud of blond hair, a pink streamer fluttering out behind her.
“Relax, boys, I won’t say anything.” She winked a silver-mascaraed eye. “I’m a believer in all kinds of love. And you two are very pretty examples of ‘special’ love. You fill out those tights nicely, Robin, and, General? You could impale me with your sword anytime, honey.” The princess laughed at Mel’s wide eyes. “Happy Halloween, luvs.” The princess sashayed away.
“Well, I guess we got lucky,” Mel said, still keeping a firm grip on Johnny’s hand.
“Very. I doubt that the gentleman will expose us,” Johnny said amusedly.
“Gentleman?” Mel’s eyes grew wide again.
Johnny laughed. “Oh, Mel, honey, never change. How you retain that innocence while being a top G-Man capable of running down hard cases like Pretty Boy Floyd is one of the most charming things I love about you.” He gently touched the side of Mel’s face, then stood, squeezing his lover’s hand. “Come on, darlin’, a whole new life awaits.”
Mel’s eyes were shimmering. “I love you with all I have, heart and soul.”
Johnny blinked, then pulled Mel up and hugged him tightly, whispering in his ear, “I couldn’t love you more, Mel.” Mel’s arms were tight around him.
When they parted, Johnny smiled his crooked grin and grasped Mel’s hand. They walked off into the moonlight-silvered garden, Halloween magic whispering on the wind.