Once Upon a Character

Some time ago I wrote a mystery story which now resides under my writing desk in a box. I liked the premise (still do) but discovered I enjoyed writing about a secondary character more than I did about the necessary police protocol. As a reader, I think every character is important to a story… as important to the book as the narrative itself. Secondary characters are no exception. For me, they are the twists, the unexpected, the humor in a too dark chapter, and the proof that the author cares about his principals enough to give them a fleshed out cast of supporting characters. As a writer, I believe those characters can give more depth to the protagonist and reveal things that we readers not only want to know but need to know in order to follow the hero to the end. Spencer has Hawk, Dave Robichaux has Clete. Nora Blackbird has her sisters. And the detective who languishes in that book box beneath my desk has Mae McEwan. I’d like you to meet her. I think she’s a pip…and there’s more to her than meets the eye.


My full name is Margaret Kathleen Mary Fiona McEwan but you can call me Mae. Most people do. Sometimes they add Dundee to the Mae. That’s where I was born some forty years ago, near the highlands of Scotland. I’m a nurse–some call me a healer— by trade although for the past twenty years my main occupation has been to traipse after me older brother Drummond. He drinks. Our mum and dad disowned him long ago, so he took to wandering and ended up in the States. I made it my business to follow. He has no skills, not unless getting into scrapes wherever he manages to put his feet qualifies. So far they’ve been the minor kind, brawls in the pubs and missin’ days at the jobs he hires out on. Mostly it’s his friends who need the helping, so I meddle a bit; find out what I can to set things right. Then we move on. It never pays to stay too long in one place. Trouble comes to the door when ye warm your feet at one fire more than a bit. We did that in Chamberlain City, Drum and me, and we almost died.

It was the fall of the year, warm days and chill damp New England nights near the branch of the Taunton River that runs through Chamberlain City, Massachusetts. I’d settled into one of the old warehouses lining Dockside Road, the main avenue to the once thriving but now ramshackle port and warehouses. Faded brick and old wood, they contained vacant offices from the more successful days of shipping. I claimed the largest of the second floor offices at the defunct D&S Imports and made it my home. Scavenging provided some creature comforts; a mattress from the mission along with a quilt or two, a used hot plate and pot for boiling water for me tea and a wash-up from the thrift shop and a single setting of dishes I cadged from the soup kitchen. The rest I had in my carpetbag. I travel light so I can keep chasin’ after Drum, who usually sleeps at shelters or worse with no more than the clothes on his back. I worried about him, but he didn’t want anyone to think he needed a keeper. I kept an eye on him all the same. Living among the homeless was serious business.
This morning the dented metal teakettle I’d pulled from the dumpster behind McGinty’s store tooted merrily. I’m a stickler about me tea. I’d carried a brown crockery teapot with me since I left Dundee, just to have a decent brew, and had already placed my well-used tea ball inside, filled with those precious dark leaves waiting to be bathed in the scalding water. I loved the smell of the brewing almost as much as the drinking itself. As I tilted the liquid from the kettle into the small pot I watched the steam rise gently, inhaling the beginnings of that heady fragrance that comes from good Earl Grey leaves. It was then that I heard not one but two sets of sirens, screaming their approach closer and closer until they seemed to stop just outside my building. Forgetting the tea, I grabbed my old pea coat from the hook near the door. Sirens in the Townsend-Nestor dockside area were never just a drill. Something bad had happened, and each time I thought it might be happening to Drum.
    As I reached the ground floor I pulled open the scarred glass paneled door with those faded D&S letters still visible. I could see an ambulance and a single fire truck stopped just near the tent city where most of the homeless families spent the summer; sweltering in the heat and hiding out from the summer storms. Two figures in blue and white jumpsuits pulled a collapsible cart from the back of the ambulance and headed into the vacant lot behind McGinty’s store. If I’d had my common sense on that day I’d have headed back upstairs, but I was worried about me brother, and curious as well. So, I buttoned up, pulled out an old ball cap to cover my unruly red hair and rushed over to see what I could see.
   “Hola, Mae. Como esta?” The voice belonged to Felix Fuentes. His greeting was followed by a quick puff on one of those inhalers that helped people with asthma breathe. Felix had more than asthma. He was minus a lung although he never said why. He was a good man with a hard history.
   “Hola, Felix. Seen Drum?” I walked over to his side, taking notice that his thin frame was shivering in the river breeze. “Och, lad, where’s your coat? It may be a bonny day but it’s still a brisk one.”
   “Ah, Mae, I heard the noise and left it behind. When I was a boy, the sirens were never a good thing. I needed to see.” His dark eyes showed large in his face. “But no, Drum I have not seen. No crea que…?”
   “I truly hope not.” My words were to ease Felix’s worry as well as my own. The fire unit stood apart from the ambulance, the men shrugging out of their gear and closing up the hose compartments. No fire. That at least was good. Flames down here would take out more than just the wooden framed storefronts. St. Jude’s Shelter and the mission’s soup kitchen would be cinder and char if a fire ran rampant. “Go get your wrap,” I said to Felix. “I’ll keep an eye out and come tell you what I see. You still working day jobs for the Father?”
   “Si, for Father Andy at the church. You will come soon?”
   “I promise. Now go before you catch your death.”
   As Felix left, I made my way easily through the sparse group of onlookers gathered at the edge of the vacant lot. Ramona, my partner in caring for the wee ones, nodded at me but said nothing. Three leather-jacketed toughs ambled past with nary a look, like they’d seen it before. Florence Anders, the city’s latest excuse for a social worker, barked at Tom Folger, one of Drum’s scavenging pals, to get out of her line of vision. A serious young man with a camera clicked away with his digital camera and talked to the onlookers. The ambulance door stood wide open, but what held my interest was the arrival of a green and white vehicle bearing the words “Chamberlain City Police” and the motto “Protecting the People”. A stocky balding figure with grim features got out and walked up to one of the firemen, who extended an arm in the direction taken by the ambulance attendants. I followed his progress as I stepped closer to the fire truck.
   “You’ll have to stop right there, ma’am.” The fireman’s voice let me know he meant business. “Nothin’ to see but an old bum. Just like the last one. You’d think these old geezers would….” He noticed my layers of clothing and faded ball cap and shrugged. “Just stay back.” He stowed his gear in the side compartment of the engine and walked off, stopping to have a word with that photo taker. I waited one long second and set my feet on the course that would take me closer to the cop and the gurney.
   “McGinty called it in,” I heard one of the attendants tell the cop. “Found him outside next to the dumpster when he came out with the trash. Looks like the old guy died in his sleep. According to McGinty, his name is Alf Bannerman.”
   So it wasn’t Drum. But something wasn’t right. Alf had a long-standing place at St. Jude’s. He was as apt to catch a nap outside as I was to be drinkin’ that bottled tea they sold at the store.


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