Work in Progress: ‘Welcome to Betelgeuse’

Reading Time: 8 minutes

ThIs Is a sample from my first National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) project, which I managed to draft out in the 30 days that hath November, 2018. It’s the first of a series that introduces a new fictional universe that I hope to populate with at least two sequels celebrating the immortality of British and American pop culture heroes and their influence on my generation.

In this first chapter, Viv is a little noted nor long remembered central character of a popular British writer’s spy thriller who, fresh from that adventure, finds herself in a strange town in the Adirondacks (you can see the skyline in the cover photo) where she will face a fight for her own survival that will spill over from the fictional world to life as we know it. As one popular spy spoof once (well, more than once) put it: “The fate of the entire Civilized World hangs in the balance.”

Here’s what I’ve done so far:

Present the fictional universe, initial plot and characters, and write a first rough draft.

This is rough around the edges.

Now on to the next task: Rewrite!

Chapter 1


Viv — trying to remain anonymous, she thought of herself by just one name now — pulled her little Vespa up short by the side of the road and stared ahead down the dark pavement. As far as she could see — barely a hundred feet by the dim headlight — a dozen tiny blue dots shone back at her, unmoving. For now, anyway.

Eyes were watching her from the black woods of late October in the Adirondacks.

She did not want to think of the eyes. She’d had enough of midnight watchers more than two weeks before, when those two horrible men — one was even called Horror, she remembered — had trapped and tormented her at the vacant motel outside Lake George. She didn’t like those eyes. She saw cruelty in them.

She saw cruelty, too, in the eyes of the mysterious stranger who responded to her desperate Vacancy sign signal and interrupted their plan. But there was kindness and courage, too — and, she later found, love, or lust, or both. No matter. She had been safe in his arms for that all-too-fleeting night. The next morning he was gone, leaving nothing but his impression in her mind and in her bed, and a brief note telling her that he’d alerted the authorities, that she was likely entitled to a reward, that she should try a new brand of soap, and that her tire pressures were too high for her trip to the American south.

She’d followed his advice about everything — the soap, the authorities, the tire pressure — although now she regretted that last one. He knew she was planning to buzz south, through Washington — he’d be long gone by then — through the Carolinas and Georgia and into the promised land of Florida. There a girl could find a job and a beach, not necessarily in that order, for the winter.

Not that she’d needed the job; the reward money had more than seen to that. But a young woman — even a mystery woman with a single three-letter name — needs a purpose, and a job at a luxury resort would give her the chance, however slim, that she might see him again someday. He’d told her about his recent assignment in Miami. Perhaps she’d start there. The trail would not yet be cold.

For now, however, she was the one who was cold.

Miami was one thing and the mountains of northern New York, after foliage season, quite another. She’d let the air out of her tires, as he suggested, to prevent a blowout when she put the miles and the mountains behind her. But another two week’s delay in the North Country for reporters and debriefings and testimony and the reward — don’t forget the reward — left her now by the side of the road with dangerously squishy tires.

She did not want to be here. Anywhere but here.

Anywhere else, that is, but the charred ruins of that motel.

She sounded the Vespa’s horn, which gave a melancholy toot that was soon absorbed by the forest around her. The deer scattered noisily into the woods.

She pulled off the fur-lined goggles — an indulgence that she splurged on when she bought the scooter in the heat of August, but one that she appreciated now — and studied the map. Nothing looked familiar. In the weeks since her adventure, she had become well acquainted with the roads — and the few remaining night spots — between Lake George, where she had eventually found a clean but tacky hotel that was still open, and Glens Falls, where the police and reporters had hounded her as each day passed with new details of the investigation. But she did not know these woods, these dangerous curves, these potholes.

Could she be lost? Could she have turned west, toward God-knows-where, or even north toward Warrensburg? That town was so quiet that it was still buzzing about the day Marilyn Monroe came to town more than a decade before.

Viv smiled. With her tousled brown hair and real-life figure, she was no Marilyn, but her pretty face still turned men’s heads. She was only 23, a little more than half Marilyn’s age, but they had some things in common. They’d shared lives of personal disappointments, particularly with men. She knew all the celebrity gossip from her newspaper days. Still, Viv was glad she wasn’t typecast as the dumb blond. She couldn’t understand how Marilyn, as smart as she was pretty, according to those who knew her, could live with that.

She folded the map and tucked it into a pocket. It wouldn’t help much anyway, with no familiar landmarks. Her best bet was to follow the road wherever it went. Roads go from Point A to Point B. At Point A or Point B, whichever she found, there would be food, shelter, petrol, or at least a telephone.

She gunned the engine and soon her Vespa was humming its 40-miles-per-hour tune as she sped down the road.

Other than the deer, which she still saw skittering by the sides of the road, she had little company. The black bears, which pestered campers and tourists during the summertime, were pulling back away from civilization and finding their dens for winter. Most other woodland animals, like the masked raccoons that raided the trash cans at the motel during her brief stay, were returning to the wilderness as the easy pickings dried up for the season.

The tourist traps — the Story Lands and the North Poles and Wild West towns and the like — would all be closed now, although it was strange that she didn’t see any as she rode down the road. They were everywhere in the mountains, where suburban families, fat and happy from a prosperous post-war peace, took their road trip vacations to “the country.” Dad got his fishing, Mom got her motel pool, the kids got their souvenirs from the gift shop. Is everybody happy?

But there were no tourist attractions along this route, not even the ski areas. In winter the Adirondacks become a skiers’ destination, not as quaint and cozy as the Green Mountains of Vermont, where Wallace and Davis still did their annual Christmas special from the Columbia Inn in Pine Tree. The Adirondacks weren’t green, except perhaps in summer; in winter they were gray and hard, sharp and competitive. Lake Placid was still coasting on its reputation from the 1932 Winter Olympics; even three decades later its buildings and ski jumps drew athletes from all over the world to train on its slopes.

None would be there for another month or two, though, when enough base snow fell and the ice was consistently thick for the skaters and fishermen. From the end of foliage season to the beginning of ski season, the North Country is in a state of perpetual suspense, waiting for Something To Happen. Anything.

Something had happened, to her, anyway, but she was putting that behind her. Or was it still in front? With no landmarks, a useless map, not even the moon to orient her, she could be going in circles. Or perhaps her wish was granted and she was already a hundred miles or more from the motor court’s ashes.

But in which direction?

She rode a long stretch in the woods with no turnoffs save for little vistas and parking areas that, had it been summer, might have been filled with young lovers. The cold, damp, late fall air and the clouded sky had sucked all the romance out of the evening. There were no lovers, not that she would have interrupted their rendezvous if there were.

She shuddered at the thought. It reminded her too much of that night in the woods with Derek. No, she wouldn’t make another girl go through the shame she had endured.

Then slowly, barely perceptibly, the woods began to change.

Abandoned ruts split off from the road and cut into the forest, blocked by fallen trees or young saplings growing in mid-trail. The ruts were once roads to somewhere. Old quarries? Hunting camps? Homes?

She bumped over an overgrown rail line, barely maintaining control of her scooter as its front tire got caught in the recesses of the crossing and started to follow the tracks, as if with a will of its own.

The road continued past some seasonal stops that were chained off for the winter. On the right was a silly sign for one of those children’s camps, Camp Granada. On the left, the road led down to a rundown cabin motel — Gates or Bates or something, she couldn’t make out the sign in the dark. The place was obviously deserted, as was the owner’s house that loomed on the hill behind it.

Based on the leaves on the driveways, these places had not been used for weeks. She knew from her end-of-the-season work at the motel what that meant: They were closed up tight for another six months. The food was gone, telephone disconnected, power off, well water shut down. But if she had to break in, at least there would be shelter and probably a bed.

Still, these were good signs. The empty road was beginning to look like the outskirts of a town, one she hadn’t yet seen in her prolonged time in the mountains of New York. She knew the signs of life outside a village: the old trails, the abandoned houses, the closed seasonal businesses, and then the full-timers, the diehards who made their town, whatever it may be, their home. Safety — food, perhaps a room for the night, was only a mile or two away.

Once more she revved the engine and sped into the night.

The young state trooper hurried back to his motorcycle, where the flashing light stood out against the darkness of the roadway. Unlike him, the girl had had no lights to signal attention of passers-by. Good thing she was wearing her white helmet and riding outfit. She and her crumpled silver scooter were piled in the ditch like so much snow plowed off the highway. Had this happened a few weeks later, she wouldn’t be seen until too late.

“Headquarters? Morrow here. We need an ambulance out on the old highway, near marker 49. You’ll see the lights. MVA, single rider of a motor scooter, foreign plates. Victim is female in her twenties, unconscious, with apparent serious injury to her right leg. Yes, I’ll wait.”

Lieutenant Morrow had his doubts about the bag-and-drag world of ambulances. Volunteers, especially in the rural areas, had little training beyond basic first aid. That was nothing compared to the ambulances themselves — Cadillac station wagon models that doubled as hearses in the smaller towns. Sometimes there was little difference.

Still, Betelgeuse Hospital was just a mile away. Doc was still on duty; they’d spoken just 15 minutes ago, when Morrow had brought coffee from the American Cafe before his rounds. He knew Doc would stay, just in case, when he heard the sirens and saw the ambulance head out the old highway.

The radio crackled again. It was Captain Stonor.

“Morrow, is that you?”

“Yes, sir.” He couldn’t tell if Stonor was angry or relieved.

“The girl — is she … She wasn’t supposed to get hurt! She’s not even supposed to be here!”

“Yes, sir. I mean, no, sir. She’s alive but unconscious. Not responsive. I think the helmet saved her.”

“That’s for the Doc to determine. This wasn’t supposed to happen. She was going to head out of town two weeks ago, when we were done with her, and head south. She’d be far away from here by now, in Washington’s jurisdiction. They were supposed to pick her up there. They have much better facilities for internationals like her. What happened, lieutenant?”

“Can’t say, sir. At least I don’t know why she didn’t follow the plan. As for tonight, it looks like she hit a pothole and a patch of ice and skidded off into a ditch. Good thing there weren’t any trees or telephone poles around.”

“Of course there aren’t any telephone lines, you nitwit!”

Morrow swallowed hard. He was still getting used to that part.

“Captain, I have to go. The ambulance is here.”

“All right, but I want a full report on my desk in the morning!”

“Yes, sir.”

Morrow crouched alongside the stretcher as the ambulance attendants splinted the woman’s leg. Still unconscious, she inhaled sharply in pain as they lifted her into the back of the ambulance.

The lieutenant leaned over and whispered in her ear. “Damn it, Viv. I told you to watch out for potholes.”

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