14. August 2020 · Comments Off on It’s Available Now – Luna City #9 · Categories: Uncategorized
And when the third Luna City Compendium is released, around Christmas 2020, it will include books 7, 8, and 9!
21. April 2020 · Comments Off on The Ballad of Charley Mills and the Hanging Tree · Categories: Uncategorized

(Continued, to be included in Luna City #9 – the true story of how and why Charley Mills was almost lynched in Town Square, in 1926. Much of the story is carried by Alister Mcgill, then chief of police in Luna City, as the last living eyewitness to that event, Miss Letty McAllister, was then only six years old.)

My sergeant and chief investigator at the time of these developments was one John Drury; a trusty man who had been a Texas Ranger with Captain McNelly’s border company before he needed to shave – a bare boy of sixteen then and only because his father had been a Ranger and recommended his son to Captain McNelly. Now it was near half-a-century on; still, John Drury was a canny man and a trusty one, too. Not half-bad a marksman, either; had no wife or family, so his life was devoted to law. He was near to the age of seventy at this time but appeared as fit and vital as a man half that span of years. If the city budget could afford his salary, and he was willing to work for it, who was I to object? When we were told that the third drummer died in hospital, I called Drury into my office for a consultation. The mayor, Mr. McAllister was of the mind that we could all sort it out without much fuss and he had expressed his complete confidence in my department.

“So, what think you, John?” I asked, for we were familiar enough to use our first names, when it was a matter of us in private, although John Drury usually preferred to address me by rank. He shook his head.

“A curious thing, Captain. There’s many a tale told about Charley Mills, but never a one that he makes bad likker. Not the slightest whisper. A rogue, a bad and wicked man, not to be trusted within reach of any honest man’s money, any portable property of value, or his wife and daughter … but I’ve never heard anything about his whiskey being bad to drink. Not even in these parlous times.”

“Neither have I,” said I in reply. “I dare say that I have sampled enough of it, in the time that I have been living here and taken no ill at all. Even before the Volstead Act was signed into law.”

“I would say the same and had no concern,” John Drury answered. He looked thoughtful, as if he were considering much. “Until the matter of those three unfortunate lads. Mills supplies Dunsmore’s little speakeasy – exclusively, I am certain of it. There’s been no illicit deliveries that I can see. An outsider to Luna City would be remarked upon – especially if they were thought to be bootleggers from outside Karnes County. Even disguised as groceries … no, Captain. It’s irregular, as near as I can see. Rogues go to a pattern, unless they are very, very clever. It’s to my mind that Charley Mills is not all that clever.”

“Clever enough to pay a good lawyer,” I pointed out, “And keep him on retainer. It irks me, John, knowing that Mills lives like an old robber baron, among his castle ruins, abusing and robbing the peasantry as he feels the urge… And no one might touch him, legally.”

John Drury was already shaking his head. “There is that, Captain. But above all, Mills is an indolent, lazy bastard. He’s not given over to the spirit of invention in his criminality… but that woman. His common-law wife …”

“Mrs. Mills, or Miss Carolina de San Pedro,” I said. “A woman of such obvious aristocratic qualities – and she must be less than half the old reprobates’ age! One does wonder how the old goat managed to attract her, or why she remains with him for longer than five minutes.”

“Indeed, Captain,” John Drury nodded agreement. “High-bred Mex, in my experience as proud as Lucifer – usually claiming to be Spanish of the pure blood, limpieza de sangre as they used to say. A common-law marriage, as I have heard – based merely on cohabitation for seven years or more. Now, if Mrs. Mills is looking to expand the local market by trading on the Mills reputation and cutting corners … When did she become part of the Mills ménage? About ten years, if I recall correctly. A refugee from political violence in Mexico; in fear for her life, as her family was on the losing side of the Huerta-Carranza revolutionary brangle. She slipped over the border and went to ground in the nearest handy refuge, having no other useful trade than offering her hand in marriage.”

“When is there ever not political violence in Mexico?” I replied. “It’s like the border wars between England and Scotland, you ken – constant and everlasting cattle raids, refugees from the losing side going back and forth across the border, fomenting resistance and rebellion… against whomever. In my home country it eventually became a wholesome outdoor sport, I do believe.”

“Texas has become your element, Captain!” John Drury grinned with unalloyed delight. “The ground is familiar to you in theory, which is a useful guide to practice, when used carefully.” His countenance sobered. “I think that we should interview the so-called Mrs. Mills, then. Something has changed drastically within their operation. We should know what it was, if she will be honest…”

“When have we ever known one of the criminal fraternities to be honest?” I said. John Drury chuckled.

“When it’s their living at stake, Chief. Their nuts in a vice, or Old Casuse standing them up in the saddle of his horse, under a tree with a sturdy branch and a noose around their neck. Sing like canaries, they do. Guaranteed.”

“We can’t go to that limit, John,” I said – although I do not deny that I relished a mental image of doing so to Charley Mills.

So we got in my car, and drove out to the Mills place, to interview Mrs. Mills – as was she called. It was a mild day, with spring just beginning to shyly come on, new green leaves on the trees and swarms of pink primrose and yellow daisies, the grass in the meadows beside the road to the south of town. The prettiest time of the year, so I have always thought – the Highlands in my youth may have been more glorious for scenery two or three days out of the month, but the incessant dreary rain for the other twenty-seven or twenty eight was enough to drive a man to drink, or to travel to any place with nicer weather. We hummed along the road at a goodish clip; can’t recollect if Route 123 had been paved with macadam by that time, or if it were still only graveled.

The turn-off road to the Mills place was barely marked; a sagging gate with a faded and hand painted “No Trespassing!” board hung from it. John Drury got out to tug the gate all the way open, and wrestle it closed after I had driven through. He resumed his place in the passenger seat with a sigh.

“The Mills place was the pride of Karnes County, back when I first settled here. A beautiful, well-run showplace; a pretty painted house, manicured pastures, fat and contented stock. Now, I swear, the only fat contented stock are Charley’s pet alligators. It’s a tragedy, Captain – that such a fine, hard-working man and wife as James and Jane Mills should have been blessed with a lazy, worthless piece of work like Charley for a son and heir! The three Graces, they called the daughters – every one as lovely a girl who ever turned heads in the street! They went to finishing school in San Antonio, you know – every imaginable womanly accomplishment between them, and then Charley … a disappointment in every possible aspect!”

“Cruel it is, John,” I said, for it seemed that John had been fondly attached to the Mills family, especially the girls, and of a proper age to have courted several of them, but with little success, as he was a man of no great property himself. He looked out though the windscreen of the Ford, a bleak expression upon his countenance, as the Ford bumped at a careful speed,  down the rutted lane which led through the neglected acres of the Mills Place – pastures and fields now well-overgrown with cane and mesquite. The prospect of the main house and the outbuildings presented a picture of even more ruin and neglect – a climbing rose with small blood-red blossoms straggled up along one side of what once had been a trim little cottage, lavishly adorned with fret-sawed wooden lace. The porch sagged, dangerously, and the white paint which once must have been renewed every decade or so, under the blast of a pitiless Texas summer sun, was peeling and chipped away on the south-facing walls. The rose should have been pruned many seasons since. Many windows boasted broken panes, filled in with squares of cardboard, tin and other such trash. It was a sad prospect and I felt something of John Drury’s sorrow; a goodly inheritance gone to rack and ruin, under the rule of a careless and dissolute keeper.

The sole thing in the Mills demesne which appeared to be whole and in excellent repair and condition was the green Ford panel truck which sat around the side of the house, before the grey weathered barn of unpainted planks – a barn which leaned precipitously towards south-east, in an unsettling manner, which suggested that the next vicious Blue Norther would bring the whole edifice down in a tumble of planks. The panel truck was brand new, or as near to it as could be. Charley Mills’ bootlegging operation must be prospering, I conveyed silently to John Drury by a significant glance towards it and a raised eyebrow, and he nodded in agreement. There was a woman, just coming out from that barn, a slender young woman wearing unwomanly trousers, lugging a heavy crate in her hands, a crate of bottles – from the clinking sound that the made, when she stowed in the back of the panel truck, and sauntered boldly to meet us.

“Mrs. Mills,” said I, courteously; for of course, we wished to cultivate this woman, not frighten her into uncooperative defiance. “Might we have a moment of your time – tis a matter of investigating murder in a lesser degree … that would be a courtesy that I would remember in future, in the event of any investigation from outside my office.”

“Chief McGill,” she nodded, warily. “And Sergeant Drury. To what do I owe the pleasure of your company this morning?”

Mrs. Mills had a pleasing voice, with only the slightest of accents. She spoke like a lady of noble station, and without any trace of nervousness in her manner or expression. Carolina de San Pedro Mills was then about thirty, I would have judged. She wore her plain shirt and unladylike trousers with the air of a woman modeling them for a fashion magazine, or perhaps a poster advertising a moving picture. She was not one of those who had bobbed her hair in the current fashion, but wore it long, smooth and dark, knotted at the back of her head, as if she would otherwise have favored one of those tall Spanish combs with a length of fine lace draped over it, and perhaps a pair of clicky-castanets to go with. As fair of complexion as any Englishwoman, she also had arresting eyes – eyes of a peculiar blue-green color, the same blue-green shade of the shallow waters off the Holy Isle of Iona, blue-green water on a strand of beach the color of fine white sugar. Whatever might have led a woman of such quality to a marital alliance with a villain like Charley Mills was a mystery even more profound than the mystery which had led John Drury and I to this place in the beginning.

“It is a matter of tainted alcohol,” I said, after waiting for John Drury to speak. “That which poisoned the three travelling drummers. They drank at Dunsmore’s speakeasy, the evening before they were stricken – no, it is a matter of record and the witnesses reliable and have made sworn statements…”

A bit of an exaggeration, I will admit to these pages – but all may be fair in love, war, and criminal investigations. John Drury nodded in solemn affirmation

“You know about Dunsmore?” she asked, warily. “But of course. I have heard there is nothing happening in Luna City of which you do not know…”

“Flattery, lass, will get you nowhere,” I replied, although I was pleased. A reputation for omniscience was a useful thing, I had long since known, although I was no more gifted with particular insight than any other human with skills for good observation and logical deduction. “Of course, I know about Dunsmore – ‘tis an open secret. Look, lass – I care nothing for whether gentlemen drink among company or alone, as long as they conduct themselves fittingly and don’t take from wages that would feed their little children to drink themselves silly every night after work. But I care very much that someone tainted the alcohol at Dunsmore’s with poisonous wood-alcohol and so does Mayor McAllister. I wish for insight into why this might have been done, and to whose’ advantage the painful death of good customers might have been, so that they may be rightfully charged with contributing to cases of wrongful death. Mr. Mills has long been the source of much in the way of spirituous liquors in this vicinity – now, would you wish that the great clumsy feet of investigators from the Bureau of Prohibition come trampling into Luna City, interfering with our business, and harming those who have never given harm to anyone? Ours is a delicate spiderweb, Mrs. Mills. Outsiders will not take anything like the care that I will, the care which Mayor McAllister desires me to exercise in this matter. What you say to Sergeant Drury and myself will be kept in confidence, so we urge you to be candid – for the good of us all. You do not wish to be repatriated as a criminal foreigner back to Mexico, I would take it …”

A misstep. She regarded us with a level gaze. “No, for I am legally married to Mr. Mills – and this was recorded before witnesses in the office of the Justice of the Peace in Brownsville – in 1915. You can send for the records if you wish. A wife cannot be made to testify against her husband.”

“Aye, then, for such is the law,” I apologized – a tactful withdrawal in the military sense. “And ‘tis a law that I am sworn to uphold, Mrs. Mills – I beg you not to make upholding it difficult for us all. You would swear on anything you hold in reverence, that the liquor provided to Mr. Dunsmere’s place of business was sound, not tampered or adulterated with wood-alcohol or any other such substance, when it passed from your hands into Mr. Dunsmore’s … or those of his agents.”

“Who took possession of the delivery on Thursday last to Dunsmore’s grocery?” John Drury pressed, with the adept timing of an actor with a cue. “That, and the previous shipment? My information is that such is consigned weekly, as he cannot stock very much at a time, and the consignment is near-consumed at the end of the week before the next delivery?”

“Mrs. Dunsmore, sometimes,” Carolina Mills regarded me slantwise, from those amazing blue-green eyes, all the more startling for being fringed by ink-dark lashes. “Humiliating – to make deliveries after dark or in the early morning, after arranging a time. But last week – it was Ambrosiano. Ambrosiano Gonzales. Most usually, Mrs. or Mr. Dunsmore took delivery – Ambrosiano only came to work for them in January. He is a very poor relation of Don Antonio, of the Rancho Rincon and there is no work for him there. He took employment, working in the grocery. Shifting heavy boxes and running errands. He also is fleeing la Revolucion…” Carolina Mills added. “Because he is a good Catholic and a believer…”

“God save us, they’ve got yet another war going on,” John Drury commented, sotto voice, and I said, rather loudly,

“And this was your usual delivery of …”

“Mixed goods,” Carolina Mills replied. “Bourbon whiskey, brandy, apple-jack from our enterprise – all the good stuff…” that last term came rather awkwardly from her lips. Not her native speech, I judged, but that of her so-called-husband. “All pure, all un-tainted. I … that is, we – we have a reputation for superlative quality. I would not spoil that, not for anything. Neither would Mr. Mills. A matter of pride. Not to cheat. Here …” she went to the back of the Ford, where the box which she had just carried to it reposed on the bed. “Pick a bottle … pick two at random. Take them away and test them – and if they are tainted and poisonous – then come and put your bracelets on my wrists….” And she held up her hands, close together in a splendid gesture. “And then do with me what you will. For I will swear to you on our Holy Mother – that our liquor is pure and of the highest quality imaginable.”

“I will, and thank you for your cooperation,” I said, as I took two bottles at random out of the open crate in the Ford. “I believe that we are done here, Sergeant Drury. If you will accompany me … my thanks for your information, Mrs. Mills. We shall test this in our laboratory. Do not attempt to leave the area – or if needs must, let us know.”


13. April 2020 · Comments Off on From Luna City #9 – The Ballad of Charley Mills and the Hanging Tree · Categories: Luna City Short Stories

“But the hanging mob, Miss Letty,” Clovis Walcott urged, while Richard meditated on the odd turn of events which led a Scot from Fife named Magill to become –apparently – the long-serving and much respected senior law enforcement officer in Luna City. “How did that come to involve a respectable merchant of the town and a socially non-conforming spouse? I take it that having received a pardon from the office of Ma Ferguson … he was unjustly imprisoned for violating the laws prohibiting alcohol consumption?”

Clovis Walcott, as a practicing open-air historian specializing in 19th century Americana, was perhaps even more thoroughly steeped in the Victorian ideal of social conduct than Miss Letty, Richard mused privately.

“As it happens,” Miss Letty replied, every inch the stern Methodist church lady, “He was not unjustly charged and condemned. Mr. Dunsmore was operating an illicit saloon – a speakeasy, as they termed such an enterprise then. A secret subterranean storeroom behind the grocery, with a triple-barred door opening into the alleyway behind. I believe the current owners use that room as a wine cellar. It came as a surprise to everyone, everyone save those who knew of and patronized that establishment. It seemed – from what I overheard when my parents talked of it – that the men of town were … indulgent regarding Mr. Dunsmore’s speakeasy. It was only when three drummers … that is, traveling salesmen, as they called them back then – were poisoned by bad alcohol that Chief Magill was forced to take action… This is a long story, gentleman. Are you certain you wish to hear it?”

“I’ve got nothing but time this morning,” Clovis Walcott gestured for another a fill-up of his coffee. “So, I’d admire to hear the full story, Miss Letty.”

“I don’t,” Roman added, “But I’d like to hear it anyway. And if I have to rush away in half an hour, I can always ask Great Uncle Jaimie for what he might know. He was around then… And what he doesn’t remember, Cousin Mindy can find out.”

“Indeed,” Miss Letty nodded magisterially. “Jaimie Gonzales is about the same age that I am – but his family hardly ever came to town at that time. They kept themselves to themselves, back in the day: Spanish nobility, you know.”

“That, and a lynch mob coming for them, on the off-chance of some criminal outrage being blamed on some poor idiot Tejano,” Roman nodded, in cynical agreement, and Miss Letty sighed.

“In a way, the presence of Charley Mills served as a kind of social lightening-rod. Any notable criminal goings-on happened in Luna City … were blamed on him. And on the Newton gang, of course. His presence and his well-known record of criminality and anti-social behavior served to keep the social peace in very sad times, as curious as that might seem.”

“I do want to hear the full story, Miss Letty,” Richard insisted. “Although … I have only forty minutes before I must go and oversee preparations for lunch.”

“Very well,” Miss Letty sighed. “Although the full story may take much, much longer.”

***

From the Karnesville Daily Beacon issue of March 5, 1926 – A Fatal Poisoning Among the Traveling Fraternity!

Three traveling drummers were discovered dangerously ill or dying in their rooms at the Cattleman Hotel in Luna City this Monday just past. Identified through their personal effects and the hotel registry, the deceased are Mr. Arthur Montgomery of Dallas, Texas, (aged 27) and Mr. James McArdle (aged 25) of Tulsa, Oklahoma. They were employed by several respectable commercial enterprises and were traveling through the region seeking business on behalf of their employers. A third drummer, Mr. Dennis Charlton, (aged 30) of New Orleans, Louisiana remains desperately ill in the Karnesville Regional Hospital. Doctors attending on him fear that he may lose his sight, if he recovers at all. Interviewed briefly by investigating authorities, Mr. Charlton insisted that nothing had been out of the ordinary in his visit to Luna City, where he had been received by regular clients among the commercial enterprises there, including representatives from Abernathy Hardware, and Dunsmore Groceries and Sundries.

***

From the Karnesville Daily Beacon, March 9, 1926

Mr. Dennis Charlton, a traveling salesman for the California Perfume Company, stricken by a mysterious and dangerous ailment last week, perished of that condition at the Karnesville Regional Hospital this day past. Two other traveling drummers had previously been discovered dead in their rooms by the staff of the Cattleman Hotel in Luna City this previous week. An investigation into the circumstances of this sad affair is ongoing, according to Chief of Police in Luna City, Alistair Magill.

***

  From the evidence file pertaining to investigation of case #26-3-005: item 4

A handwritten note found in the possession of the accused C. E. Mills when taken into custody by the arresting officer at 3:24 AM, 15 March 1926. (Not actually in his possession, but in his trouser pocket – note by AM)

Dearest C – come to me tonight. Mr. D in K’ville. The window will be unlatched. Love. E

***

From an untitled and unpublished memoir by former chief of police, Luna City, Alistair Duncan Magill, found among his private papers by his family, after his death from natural causes at the age of 98 in February 1987.

Chapter 47 – The Mills Lynching

The matter began as part of an entirely separate case; that of the three traveling salesmen, discovered by the staff of the Cattleman Hotel to be dead or near-death in their rooms on the morning of March 3. Simple case, you say. Three adventurous young fellows on the road; of course, they went out drinking of an evening, and the liquor they had the ill-fortune to consume that evening was adulterated with wood-grain alcohol. Nasty stuff; deadly as a matter of fact. Never was a strict dry, myself; always of the opinion that a real man could and ought to exert control over his baser urges and I never said no to a drop of the good creature, even during Prohibition. Only a weak namby-pamby would look to a higher authority to control it for him. But enforcement of the Volstead Act was the law of the land and I was sworn to uphold the law, no matter what my own private feelings in the matter. As for Prohibition in Luna City, as long as there was no harm done to any, save perhaps a thunderous headache the next morning for those who had over-imbibed, my fellows and I kept the law as sensibly as it could be and looked the other way as often as we could in good conscious and in accordance with our oath.

There was but one serious bootlegger in the vicinity, and that was Charles Everett Mills; his general criminality was a well-known matter, and a thorn in my side as well as that of many others. Mills, as scabrous a villain as I ever encountered, none the less had the wit and purse sufficient to employ an excellent and creative lawyer – Newsome by name. Gabriel Newsome. Had an office and partnership in Karnesville: Newsome, Porter & Daws. Never saw a whisker of Porter and Daws; between you and I and the gatepost, I shouldn’t be surprised to learn that they were imaginary, indeed. It was a matter of growing resentment among those residents in Luna City who had cause and clear evidence sufficient to bring criminal charges against Charley Mills as well as the persistence to follow through with charges, regularly had those charges dismissed by the judge in Karnesville.

“Look, you,” I said to Mr. Newsome – sometime late in 1925, as I recollect now after many years. This was after another charge against Charley Mills was dismissed, following upon Newsome, Esq.’s eloquent defense of the character of the defendant along with a subtle impugnment of the character and eyesight of those testifying witnesses – those few brave enough to come to Karnesville and testify. The jury’s verdict went for Charley Mills, of course. I believe that they were all foreigners from Karnesville and farther afield. “This can’t go on. Your client is a menace. Too many local people know what he is, indeed.”

“That may be,” the rascal replied, impertinent, as he gathered together his paper briefs. “But his money is good, and I endeavor to give full value for it. Are you intending to intimidate me, Chief Magill? My hours are flexible; I may complain to the judge about this, if you persist.”

“Consider it a word of professional warning,” I replied, considerably irked.

Indeed, there was little that I could do, and I was full annoyed at having my good advice spurned so. For Mr. Mills was indeed walking a thin line, for all that his lawyer could keep him from a conviction and a term in the county jail. My reading of local temper was acute, as were those of my constables. Charles E. Mills had offended against too many law-abiding citizens; openly flouted the law, in matters other than the bootlegging of spirits. Indeed, it was my sense that this was the least of his offenses against the laws of God and man. If he had only kept himself to his distilling enterprise, most in Luna City would cheerfully have looked the other way. Our Lord was one who relished the taste of good wine and saw it as a pleasure available to all in celebration. Indeed, the Miracle at Cana attests to that inclination, and in that, my good friend the Reverend Rowbottom of the First Methodist Church of Luna City agreed privily with me. Most in his congregation did not agree, though. Father Antoine of Sts. Margaret and Stephen also agreed, citing the same scriptural accounts. Aye, but that is neither here nor there. Father Antoine was a Papist of the stern old school and the Reverend Rowbottom was unusually broadminded for a hard-shell Methodist..   

07. April 2020 · Comments Off on The Ballad of Charley Mills · Categories: Luna City Short Stories

“I think the branch on that big oak at the corner of the square looks dead,” Roman the builder remarked one bright spring morning, as brilliant sunshine flooded into the Café. The oaks in the square – the oaks which gave an air of nobility and something of the atmosphere of a green forest glade to Town Square – were covered in the green of new foliage and dusty springs of blossoms, which shed a kind of bright yellow dust the length and breadth of the heart of Luna City. All but a single barren branch; a branch the thickness of a man’s body, and which stretched out some twenty feet above the paved promenade opposite the front window of the Café. Roman continued. “I better tell the Mayor, get the work crew out to take out that branch, before it falls and kills somebody.”

“Do, please,” Miss Letty agreed. “I have noted several woodpeckers in that tree, and they prefer dead wood, of course. If the oak wood can be salvaged, and sawn into planks …” she added, thoughtfully. “It’s a historic tree, you know. They called it the ‘Hanging Tree,’ back in the day.”

“Was it, indeed, Miss Letty?” Richard was fascinated. He hovered around the stammtisch now that the morning rush was winding down, attending on his most valued regular customers. “I never knew that …”

“Well, the historical marker is around on the other side of the tree,” Miss Letty added sugar to her second coffee, sounding especially acerbic. “You cannot see it from here, I suppose. But that is the tree from which Old Charley Mills was nearly lynched in 1926.”

“I knew that,” Clovis Walcott gestured for the hovering Araceli to add a refill to his own coffee cup. “Local history, of course. But I’ve never really heard the fill tale. I suppose that you know of it, Miss Letty – as president emeritus of the Luna City Historical Society.”

“Better than that,” Miss Letty took a dainty bite from her just-from-the-oven cinnamon roll. “I was there and witnessed what happened, although much of the aftermath was kept from me. I was only a child of six or so,” she added hastily. “Shopping with my dear mother on that morning. You know – the Wild West Emporium next door used to be a dry goods store. Mother wanted to purchase a length of calico for a new apron, and a spool of thread. And a quantity of fine linen for a dress for me. For my seventh birthday, you know. She had a nice pattern from the Simplicity Company. Mother had ordered it from Sears. We were going to pick out some nice fabric there, and then go shopping for the weekly groceries at Dunsmores’ Grocery. That grocery is the real estate office now is, next to Abernathy Hardware. In my young days, it was the general store. Luna City had one, you know. Then we didn’t need to travel all the way to Karnesville to buy groceries. Mr. Dunsmore was a fine-looking man, who always gave me a piece of peppermint candy. I liked him. His wife was much younger than he was. She came from the East – she was the first woman in Luna City to have her hair bobbed, and wear skirts above her knee. Mother thought she was fast – and wore too much lipstick and powder for a properly married woman,” Miss Letty added, in mildly-arctic disapproval. “Mrs. Dunsmore was even said to have rouged her knees.”

“The scandal of it all,” Richard commented, privately thinking that the senior Mrs. McAllister sounded like a perfectly dismal, po-faced old trout.

“It was a small town,” Miss Letty didn’t distain the obvious. “Mother was raised with the understanding that it was unsuitable for a lady to improve upon nature with anything more drastic than papier poudre. She thought Mrs. Dunsmore’s free and easy ways made it most difficult for the Dunsmore’s daughter, Caroline. Caroline was, I think – eleven, that year. She helped her parents in the store, after school. We were not close enough in age to be friends, and by the time I was older, Caroline Dunsmore had been sent back east to her mothers’ kinfolk – because of the scandal. The Governor, Mrs. Ferguson, issued him a pardon after he was put in prison for running an illicit saloon … but the scandal when it all came out! Memories are long in small towns…” Miss Letty added apologetically. “Especially when it comes to … affairs of the romantic sort.”

Clovis Walcott snorted. “Not long enough, Miss Letty – I’ve never heard of this, and I’ve read Dr. McAllister’s history so often the pages in my copy are ragged.”

“My brother did hit the relevant points,” Mis Letty agreed. “That Charley Mills was nearly hanged by a mob, from the Hanging Tree in Town Square, after being accused of molesting Caroline Dunsmore in her bedroom at two in the morning. He was such a disgraceful character that practically anything might be believed of him. But it was a complicated matter, and some of it didn’t come out until after my brother had written his history. And Douglas was more nearly Caroline’s age, you see. They were friends, of a sort, and my brother was always sentimental about his friends. And it may have been the one time in history,” Miss Letty added thoughtfully, “That Charley Mills was actually quite … well, not innocent, exactly. But blameless. Blameless in the matter of which he was accused on that particular occasion. It was all made clear when Phillip Vaughn found his father-in-law’s unpublished memoir and donated it to the Historical Society. That would have been in 1990, or so – some years after the centenary. Alistair Bratten was the chief of police in Luna City for many years. He had …” Miss Letty reflected, while Roman, Richard and Clovis attended breathlessly, “The most imposing mustache. It really was a monument, that mustache; Chief Bratten being a notable monument in himself. He was a Scot, originally – from Fife, I believe. On Founders’ Day, he wore a kilt and played the bagpipes as part of the observations. My father respected him enormously. For Douglas and I, there could have been no higher testament to his worth. His only daughter married Frank Vaughn, who had a small property near Beeville, which was foreclosed in the first year of the Great Depression – that is how the Vaughn family came to Luna City and inherited a kind of traditional role in law enforcement …”

“But the hanging mob, Miss Letty,” Clovis Walcott urged, while Richard meditated on the odd turn of events which led a Scot from Fife to become –apparently – the long-serving and much respected senior law enforcement officer in Luna City.      (Yes, to be continued. This will be part of Luna City #9)  

06. March 2020 · Comments Off on The Chapel – A Excerpt from The Next Luna City · Categories: Luna City Short Stories

“So, have they sorted out what to do with that benighted bloody reliquary?” Richard demanded on a Monday in mid-January, when frost had rendered the dead grass on the verges to the consistency and crunchiness of corn flakes. Kate had come to share an evening in the caravan, as the sun set in layers of orange and bronze, behind the black-pen strokes of the veil of trees to the west. The old Airstream was a cozy cocoon of light and warmth, in the deserted caravan park which was the Age of Aquarius Campground (and Goat Farm) for most of the calendar year, natural disasters along the coast notwithstanding.

Kate reclined against the banquette, having kicked off her sensible low-heeled pumps with a slight groan; an odalisque lounging along the comfortable length of the padded sofa-bench at the kitchen/dining area of the Airstream. She had brought some extra-strong fresh catnip for Ozzie, who was now stoned out of his tiny cat-mind, blissed out on the hand-hooked rug in the bedroom end of the tiny metal-clad caravan. Richard couldn’t imagine what Ozzie might be dreaming of. World domination and three-story-tall granite statues of noble cats in the Egyptian style, lined up in ranks in front of a temple precinct, in which an Ozzie-priest of high cat-rank, clad in cloth of gold and notable jewelry presided over a ritual sacrifice of mice, brought on catnip-adorned trays of silver and gold by devotees to the shrine …

Richard wrenched his mind away from that mental vision, and back to the bouillabaisse under the final stages of preparation. Supper for Kate, his cherished Kate! demanded his complete attention as well as her reply.

“It’s the treasure of our family … a fill-up, please? I’m wiped.”

“Minx,” Richard reached across the tiny table and topped up her wine glass with another hit of Sefton’s peerless white local vintage. “Are you hoping to seduce me, if I get you drunk?”

“You can never get me drunk,” Kate’s amazing, beryl-blue/green eyes twinkled at him. “I have the hardest head in Karnes County. I grew up drinking Poppa Fritz’s home-brewed ale. Thinned with sparking water, early on. Consider me inoculated… no, what is happening with the Gonzaga Reliquary, or what there is left of it after a couple of centuries of hard use and the family treating it as a kind of portable checking account… is that Great Uncle Jaime is going to fund a small chapel on the home ranch to house it. He says that it is the treasure of the family, so it’s going to stay with the family. Although Father Bernardo did make a pitch for adding it to the sanctuary at St. Antony and Margaret. But Great Uncle Jaime is stubborn that way. Family stuff stays with the family, end of discussion. So, he’s talked to Uncle Jesus at the garage, and Roman about building a small chapel at the rancho. Father Bernardo says that he will ask the auxiliary bishop if he would come for the consecration. And Araceli’s brother Berto is going to design it as part of his senior engineering project…”

“I hope he isn’t going to go all tinfoil and odd shapes,” Richard turned his attention to the preparation of the richly garlicky rouille to go with. “I’m not strictly a person of religion, but it just doesn’t put one into the proper frame of mind, sitting in one of those modern monstrosities, with clear glass windows and a minimalist altar-piece and pulpit …just all right angles and no ritual, bells, smells and stained glass parables. If it’s theater, it has to put one in the proper mood…”

“You’re a traditionalist, sweetie,” Kate grinned at him. “An agnostic religious traditionalist. No, Berto is already champing at the bit – especially as he can repurpose a lot of salvage from a deconsecrated convent in Beeville, which Uncle Roman thoughtfully set aside for something like this project. It gives Berto extra points on the sustainability scale for his class. He reckons that he can get an A for this project, and all props for reuse, recycle, and repurposing,” Kate added with an air of conspicuous virtue. “Uncle Roman is going to pour the foundation at the end of the month. And … you’ll be amused no end by this part. When it’s completed and consecrated, Cousin Mindy wants to marry her dearest Xavie, at the chapel, before the Reliquary which brought them together…”

“Good God!” Richard had just taken a sip from his own glass of Sefton’s peerless mustang grape elixir – the white, to go with the fish. It went down the wrong way, and he coughed. “Oh, Christ, Katie – you might have warned me. Has your cousin entirely lost her mind? Oh, a career academic – mad is the operating assumption … but really? Marrying that tosser Gunnison-Penn, the mad treasure-hunting enthusiast? It will not turn out well,” Richard prophesied balefully. “Mark my words; it will not turn out well!”

“Relax, lover – she has tenure, and a generous retirement plan,” Kate replied, comfortably assured. “Gosh, it must be nice! And she loves him. Which is curious, since everyone has assumed for years that she is a lesbian. No, she just adores looking for odd bits of history. And he does, too. Isn’t it always said that a successful marriage is founded on mutual enthusiasms? They both adore looking for treasure. And the Reliquary is the one thing that they have found together…”

“It’s the only thing they have found together,” Richard observed, sourly. “It’s a demonstrated and inarguable fact that Gunnison-Penn has never – ever found anything, of all those treasures that he has gone in search of … in a long, long list of treasures that he has gone after, and fallen flat-footed, after every damn one of them.”

“But Mindy loves him,” Kate answered, serenely assured. “And honestly, I think she will keep him from his madder ventures. Speaking of relationships and mutual enthusiasms – which one do we have in common? Besides that you love to cook and I love to eat what you prepare?”

“We have Ozzie,” Richard answered, considerably rattled by that question. Yes, what did he and Kate have in common, as regards enthusiasms? “We have… well, we have Luna City in common. My quest to bring an appreciation for the finer elements of classical French cuisine. We have friends….”

“Yes, we do,” Kate twinkled at him, completely assured and confident.

13. January 2020 · Comments Off on Short Story Excerpt – At Home With the Heisels · Categories: Luna City Short Stories

(From the next Luna City installation: Richard is headed to spending Christmas with Kate’s family … against his inclination.)

“Are you sure that Ozzie will be OK?” Kate asked, as she wheeled her little VW bug down the disgracefully rutted drive between the Age of Aquarius Campground and Goat Farm and Route 123. “I mean, we could have taken him with us, or left him in the trailer…”

Richard sighed. “Absolutely not, Kate of my heart. Your parents don’t know me, let alone my cat. And if we left him behind, he would have pissed in the bed, through fury at having been left behind, and locked up for all of a day. Ozzie is a social cat, although I am not entirely sure of the beings that he chooses to be social with … after all, the mice must be absolutely narked at being stalked and hunted. Bree promised that she would take care of him and ensure that he was properly amused and diverted until tomorrow morning; she claims that Ozzie would relish a slumber-party at the Straw Castle, and absolutely promised that she would keep the Grants’ other cats from beating up on him. He adores her as much as he adores you, since she saves out the juicy fish scraps for him, when we prep the Friday luncheon entree. Although she claims that he cheats at Monopoly something awful…”

“You’re chattering, Rich,” Kate shot him a sideways look from those amazing blue-green eyes; eyes the exact color and sparkle of very fine beryl jewels. “You’re not nervous about meeting Mom and Dad, are you?”

“Yes,” Richard confessed with another and even deeper sigh. “Paralyzed with terror, actually. I don’t suppose that we could turn around and spend Christmas here … you know, I could fix you a splendid dinner, with a lovely little bûche de Nöel made from scratch, and we could open each other’s gifts…”

“Nope, sorry,” Kate replied, heartlessly, as she waited for a very large tanker lorry to pass on 123 northbound towards San Antonio, raising a cloud of grit as it blew past the unpaved and little-marked road from the Age. “You committed when I asked you about this two months ago, and every time since then that I asked to reconfirm. Mom and Dad are expecting you to show … we’ve been dating for what – two years now? You simply must bite the bullet and show up with me for a traditional Griswald family Christmas gathering. Everyone is expecting to meet my nice English boyfriend. And you promised an authentic English Christmas pudding for the dessert table, don’t forget.”

“Griswald?” Rich was utterly confounded. “What fresh hell might this be, Kate? Not that I have any intention of balking at the jumps – but what?”

“Christmas movie, about overdoing Christmas,” Kate explained, and the tiny engine of the Bug roared obligingly as she stomped on the accelerator. “No, sweetie – you’ll be fine. You’ve hung out often enough with Joe and Jess, and Araceli and Pat on Sunday afternoons; you’ll be able to get along with Dad, and my big brother Matt, my other brothers, and Cousin Lester the shrink, if they want to talk about football. Especially if they want to talk about football. Mom will be sweet – she thinks the world of you already, since she tried out that white-bean and garlic on pita chip dip at Thanksgiving, and everyone couldn’t get enough of it. No, the ‘rents will be cool. It’s ….”

There was a long and heavily pregnant pause, nearly long enough to birth a litter of kittens. Richard thought it might be due to Kate’s adamantine concentration on overtaking an enormous and ponderously slow articulated lorry, which had inconveniently decided to take up a lane and a half. Richard, his heart in his mouth, kept heroic silence. He could never entirely become comfortable with the insouciant manner in which certain Lunaites and Kate drove on the major highways and byways in a manner more befitting to some reckless movie daredevil intent on leaping over gaps in highways and abruptly raised drawbridges. More »

23. December 2019 · Comments Off on Another Luna City Short Story – From Luna City #9 · Categories: Luna City Short Stories

In the Offices of the Karnesville Weekly Beacon

 

“Kate! Kate! Get in here and tell me why the heck I have fielded calls all morning from the AP, UPI, the London Times, Archeology Today, and some rude as hell asshole from New York!” Acey McClain, part-owner and managing editor (as well as every other editor) bellowed from his more or less private corner office on the second floor of the building which had served for almost a century and a quarter as the headquarters of the Karnesville Weekly Beacon – which at the time of its’ founding, had been a daily, serving Karnes County as far as Falls City to the north and Kenedy to the south. Now, alas, the local small-town newspaper struggled bravely against the economic tide, borne up by small-town concerns, crime, and gossip about strictly small-town doings, a large part of which were reported in both the print version and in the Karnesville Beacon blog (Your Beacon on What’s Happening in Karnes County!) which was run by Kate Heisel, the Beacon’s ace reporter and social media maven. Kate, who patterned herself professionally after Brenda Starr and Hildy Johnson as played by Rosalind Russel in the movie His Girl Friday, collected up her slim reporters’ notebook from her desk, and went to report to her irascible boss. Acey, long retired from active and notable crime beats in much more prestigious venues than the Weekly Beacon, nonetheless retained an interest in national news, not to mention professional and personal contacts in a wide variety of national news and media organizations – although it ought to be admitted that most of those contacts, like Acey himself, were well past the age of collecting Social Security.

“Good morning, Boss!” Kate chirped, settling herself in the lone guest chair which stood, like a prisoner about to be executed by firing squad before the battered late-19th century splendors of the editor’s desk. (Said desk looked like a down-market version of the White House Oval Office Resolute desk, without the secret compartment, or being wrought from the timbers of a British warship.) “It was a glorious event in Luna City – they think they have located the Gonzaga Reliquary. Or most of the relevant bits and pieces. Was the rude guy from the New York Times? Yeah, that would figure; they’re always rude when they are forced by circumstance to deal with us hicks from the sticks. The Brits are usually so much more superficially polite. Richard says it’s because…”

“Focus, Kate,” Acey commanded. “What’s all this about the Gonzaga-thingus?”

Kate heaved a deep and theatric sigh. “That Renaissance relic which was supposedly painted by Leonardo da Vinci in a rediscovered masterpiece found when they renovated a moldy convent in Milan a couple of years ago. God’s own ornamental bottle stopper and a fat-faced nun who looks like my Aunt Conchita when she was younger. Supposed to be an ancestress of ours. After being painted, it vanished for about three hundred years before turning up as elements of some Christmas decorations on the Luna City public Christmas tree…”

Acey pressed his fingers against his forehead – yes, he vaguely recalled hearing about this, at least six months and two-score of hangovers ago, while Kate smoothed the skirt of her modest tailored suit over her knees and continued. “It turned out that the Gonzaga Reliquary in the painting – they claim that it was the creation of Benevento Cellini, but the serious art historians do have doubts because of the spotty provenance. The long and short of it …”

“Please, Kate, favor me with the Readers’ Digest version,” Acey interjected and Kate consulted her notebook.

“OK, the short version is that the original reliquary was returned to the family – the Gonzagas – when their darling daughter was kicked out of the convent for insufficient devotion to the ideals of chastity and reverence. She and her son,” Kate snickered, a rather lewd snicker, and understandably so, “Returned to those ancestral acres in northern Spain … and a couple of hundred years later, her descendants, or at least, members of that family immigrated to Mexico and took up a Spanish land grant in what would in the fullness of time and history become the Rancho Los Robles, on the banks of the San Antonio River. Even before there was a Karnes County, or a Texas,” Kate added, with a certain amount of modest pride, “The Gonzaleses and Gonzalezes were here, with their rancho. My cousin Mindy has proved that, beyond any shadow of a doubt through research and an exploratory dig this summer – but that’s another story entirely. You have my notes on that, in the email that I sent you last week … erm. And it was the front page of the November 5th issue,” Kate added helpfully. “But for the reliquary itself; it was disassembled for hiding during the Civil War, and those parts variously concealed in the walls of the old adobe wing of the Rancho de los Robles house. It seemed that everyone who knew about that – maybe three or four people? Yeah, they were paranoid as heck about security back in the day, and who the heck could blame them? Don Luis-Antonio’s only son and heir Don Anselmo was serving with the Union, and Texas was part of the Confederacy…”

“Comment would have been made,” Acey nodded. “At the very least. And possibly a capital sentence imposed for spying and counterrevolutionary sympathies. So they hid the high-value stuff. Understandable, considering the times.”

“And then,” Kate took a deep breath. “That handful of people who knew the secret of where they hid it … they died, or went off to greener pastures, even before Don Anselmo returned after the war. The story among the family is that he got delayed by a passionate and doomed romance with a married opera singer in Mexico City for about half a decade. By that time, everyone sort of forgot about the whereabouts of the Reliquary, or even that it existed at all. Don Anselmo’s son, Don Jaimie – you remember him? He fought the last personal duel in the streets of Luna City with a Maldonado? There’s a plaque on Town Square where that happened, back in the early Twenties, sometime. Anyway, Don Jaimie had the old adobe walls knocked down, turned into rubble about a hundred years ago, when he wanted to renovate the old ranch headquarters house. The rubble – it was only adobe mud brick, after all … got plowed into a what became a Victory Garden during the Second World War. Don Jaime’s artistic sister Leonora took the found bits and pieces and made them into ornaments for a Christmas tree … oh, in about 1945 or ‘46. She had a thing for making jewelry and other ornaments out of bits of this and that. My Cousin Araceli is pretty certain that she saw them on the Christmas tree at the Rincon de los Robles home place when she was a kid … and at some point Great-Aunt Leonora’s ornaments were donated to the City to use on the Town Square Christmas Tree… they were pretty awful looking,” Kate admitted honestly. “They were not one of Great-Aunt Leonora’s finer artistic accomplishments, to be strictly truthful. I think I could do better with a hot-glue gun and a sweep through Hobby Lobby’s marked-down section the week after Christmas. But anyway, at the instant when the civic Luna City Christmas Tree was formally unveiled last week, Cousin Araceli, and Cousin Mindy’s hot international treasure-hunting boyfriend both recognized the bits from the Gonzaga Reliquary. Mostly the enamel plaque of the Virgin and Child riding on St. Gigobertus’ horse; a plaque surrounded by a nimbus of diamonds set in a corona of silver-gilt. Cousin Mindy’s BF practically collapsed when he spotted them – but he’s OK. It was just a bad case of indigestion, compounded with extreme emotion. Penny’s given to emotion when it comes to his treasure quests. This one is for the history books, since he has actually found one of those treasures that he set out looking for.” Kate consulted her notebook once again, thumbing through the pages for so many minutes that Acey began to tap his fingers impatiently against the battered and scarred top of the editorial desk.

“Ah, here it is – yes, I’ll send you the link. I got close-ups of every element as Cousin Araceli retrieved them from the Christmas tree …” Kate sighed, sounding disconsolate. “Don’t get your hopes up, or at least – don’t encourage your buddies in old media to get their hopes up. Whatever artistic element and value in the reliquary derived from the great Cellini has been pretty well wrecked … and not just from getting buried for fifty years and then welded into Christmas ornaments.”

“Oh?” Acey sat back in his battered leather-upholstered chair, and steepled his hands, as he eyed his best reporter. “And the value of these bits and pieces remaining?”

“Well,” Kate sounded as if she were temporizing. Excusing, even. “The gold and enamel bits are real enough. But just about all the so-called diamonds and precious stones set in the bits remaining … are glass fakes. Oh, there were a couple of them which were real,” she added hastily. “But Mindy thinks that the Reliquary must have been seen as a portable bank account … hit a couple of bad patches, civic unrest, the necessity of skipping old haunts because of politics … and swap out a diamond or two for gold, sell on the down-low market for cash in hand, and swap in a glass gem through the same means. The tooth of St. Gigibertus’ horse didn’t feature in the Christmas ornaments – although Mindy thinks she might have found it in the dig last month, along with a couple of shards of heavy-duty glass in a kind of cylindrical shape. It was a puzzle for her – that the horse tooth was all by itself, without any other remains of horse bones in the trench. And the bits of crystal glass seemed to fit a perfect cylinder … well, now it all comes clear,” Kate added, parenthetically. “The guesses that archeologists have to make about what they find … Mindy said something about a book called Motel of the Mysteries. Some kind of in-joke for archeologists, I guess.”

“The bottom line, Kate,” Acey looked as if his hangover was especially intense. “The bottom line, if you please. What’s with the bits and pieces of the reliquary and where are they now?”

“In the hands of an artistic expert and restorer recommended by Georg Stein, who runs the western-relic bookstore on Town Square,” Kate closed up her notebook. “An expert friend of an expert friend of another expert friend, as it were. That’s how these things roll, I expect – in Luna City and everywhere else. Great Uncle Jaimie is still pretty strict with the budget, although there may be a bit of a tangle ongoing over who exactly owns the bits and pieces. Depends on the wording of the donation to the city; were the decorations for the Town Christmas tree a loan on the part of the families who provided them, or a donation … I expect that I will have to venture another deep dive into the Beacon archives to make certain,” Kate added. “That, and into the city council archives.”

“Put on a dust mask when you do,” Acey advised, with an air of heavy foreboding. “The crap and mold in the air, and on the old archives. The basement is a toxic environment, for certain.”

“I’ll do that,” Kate promised with a sigh, and her boss regarded her with an expression of concern. “What’s the matter, dollface? Personal stuff?”

“Yeah,” Kate admitted, with another deep sigh. “Don’t want to burden you with it, since it is my personal biz, which ideally should have nothing to do with work stuff … but Christmas. I committed with Mom to bring Richard to our Christmas dinner. Months ago. He’s … umm – sort of my boyfriend, I guess. I like him lots, Acey. When he is cut, I bleed.”

“Sounds serious,” Acey commented, somewhat warily. Deep emotional commitment worried him, especially when it concerned his employees. “He doesn’t exhibit serial murder tendencies, does he? Because – in that case, I’d have to call in law enforcement.”

“Don’t worry, Chief!” Kate replied. “If Richard had any such tendencies, then I would have called in law enforcement, from the very first. The chief of the Luna City PD is married to a good friend. If I had any doubts – they would be at my back. No … that’s not what the problem is’ Mom just texted me that Grandpa Fritz will be there, too.”

“And this would be a problem in what way?” Acey ventured.

“Because,” Kate replied, with an air of tolerance. “Grandpa Fritz hates the English, root and branch. He damned near got shot as a spy – twice – by them during World War Two.”

“I can see,” Acey replied, after a long moment of thought. “That might lead a reasonable man to be a little bit sour. The Germans were indiscriminately blitzing English cities, sinking English shipping – not to mention chasing them out of France. It’s been a while since then, Kate.”

“The trouble is,” Kate took up her notebook. “That Grandpa Fritz was serving as a US Army paratroop with the 507th Paratroop Infantry Regiment at the time. He is still pretty pissed about the whole shot-as-a-spy thing, as well as the room-temp beer.”

“Oh. My.” Acey said to the door, as Kate departed the editorial corner office. “Yes. I do understand why he might still be holding a teensy bit of a grudge, Kate.”

06. December 2019 · Comments Off on A Luna City Short Story – Radio Silence · Categories: Luna City Short Stories

(For the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, in December of 1941, a short story from One Half Dozen of Luna City.)

 

Adeliza Gonzalez-Gonzales – who was never called anything but ‘Adi’ back then – was just thirteen when her older brother Manuel – Manolo to the family, Manny to his Anglo friends – came to Papi and Mama and said to them, “Papi, I want to see more of the world than Karnes County, an’ at the Navy recruiting office, they say that I’ll get a paycheck nice and regular, and I can work on ship engines that are bigger than this house. Besides, everyone says if America gets into a war, then they’ll be drafting men my age, an’ I don’t wanna be a soldier, marching around in the mud and all that. The Navy lives good, and they say that the food is great. Can I have your permission, Papi?”

Mama got all pinch-faced and weepy, because Manolo was her favorite and oldest child. Papi sighed and looked solemn and grave, saying, “Manolo – mi hijo – if this is what you truly want, I will sign the papers.” To Mama, he added, “Do not cry, Estella, can you see your boy as a soldier, following orders?”

“But he still must follow orders – the Navy is as military as the army,” Adeliza piped up, and Manolo jeered and replied, “Nothing like the same at all, Adi!”

Manolo packed a few things in a cheap cardboard suitcase, and climbed aboard the bus to the city, and in time over the next three years the postman delivered hastily-scrawled letters and postcards; letters with odd postmarks and postcards of splendidly colored landscapes and exotic places. Manolo came home on leave once, in the summer, splendid in his white uniform and round white cap, carrying a heavy duffel-bag over his shoulder with apparent ease, seeming to have expanded from a boy into a man. Manolo was greatly excited. His ship was being transferred from the West Coast to the Hawaiian Islands. He brought presents for the family, a breath of fresh air and tales of travels in exotic far lands. Later, he sent his little sister a scarf of silk gauze, printed with a map of the Hawaiian Islands and pineapples and exotic flowers. Adi put it in the chip-carved box where she kept her handkerchiefs and her most precious small possessions. From that time on, a tinted picture-portrait of Manolo in his uniform sat in pride of place on the cabinet radio and Mama kept a candle burning before it always, a candle dedicated to Saint Peter, who had the particular care of sailors.

A winter Sunday morning, when the breeze from the north promised chilly nights, and the frost in the shade had not yet melted in the sunshine; Papa came to fetch Mama and Adi and the other children after morning Mass. Adi sensed that there was something wrong, even before Papi spoke. There was a peculiarly grim expression on Papi’s face, a hush among the congregation scattering to their houses after Mass, silence broken only by the tinny sound of the radio in Papi’s car.

“The Japanese have dropped bombs on the harbor, and our bases in Hawaii,” Papi said. “The war has begun, whether we wish it or no.”

“What of Manolo?” Mama demanded, her hands to her mouth in shock and horror. “Where is he? Is he safe?”

“I have no idea,” Papi replied, his eyes shadowed with fear. Adi said nothing. She was sixteen now, almost grown. She met Papi’s gaze with a silent nod of understanding.

 

Two days later a card came in the mail, from Manolo, a card on which Mama fell on with tears of joy. “You see!” she exclaimed. “He is safe! This letter is from him! All will be well, you will see!”

“Mama, the letter is postmarked the week before last,” Adi said, to Mama’s unheeding ears. A week later, a parcel bound in brown paper arrived, addressed in Manolo’s handwriting.

“Christmas presents!” Mama exclaimed, “From Manolo, of course. You see, he is safe! It is only rumors that he is missing, that telegram was mistaken.”

“Yes, Mama,” Adi agreed with a heavy heart and a show of cheer, for the telegraph office messenger boy had brought that small envelope at mid-December. The telegram from the war office was followed in short order by Father Bertram, then the priest at St. Margaret and St. Anthony, who had seen the messenger boy’s bicycle pass the priest’s residence while Father Bertram was pruning the pyracantha hedge around the tiny garden. Everyone knew that telegrams meant bad news, now that the war had well and truly come to them, but Father Bertram’s intended consolation and comfort were misplaced, for Mama was not distressed in the least.

“In the government telegram, it says only that he is missing,” Mama insisted, over and over again. “Missing – not dead. In my heart, I know that Manolo is safe.”

In the end, Father Bertram was the most sorely grieved of them all. He departed shaking his head and saying to Adi, “Your poor dear mother – I can only think that the enormity of your loss has affected the balance of her mind.”

Father Bertram’s Spanish was very bad, afflicted as he was with a very strong accent, reflecting many years as a missionary in the Argentine, so Adi was not entirely certain of what Father Bertram meant. She only smiled uncertainly. No, Mama had merely decided that Manolo was safe, and doing what he needed to be doing for the war effort and would not hear any word to the contrary. Never mind that Manolo’s ship – the great battleship Arizona, whose engines Manolo had tended lovingly – had blown up with a roar that could have been heard halfway across the Pacific. There were pictures of the battleship, half-capsized in billowing clouds of black smoke in the weekly English newsmagazine. Poof! Like that, a candle blown out in a single breath and a thousand and a half lives snuffed out with it. It made Adi’s heart ache to think of this, and she wept, but not where Mama could see.

That Christmas and many Christmases afterwards were not happy occasions for Adi’s family. They were not happy again until Adi married and had children of her own, to bury the memory of that first wartime Christmas.

She did not even cry when Cousin Nando, and Cousin Jesus Gonzales and a half-dozen of the other teenage boy cousins came to Adi after Mass on Christmas Day, 1941, announcing that they had all sworn a blood-oath to avenge Manolo. Cousin Jesus had already had his orders to report to the Army, but the other boys were intent on volunteering for the Army, the Navy, the Marines even.

“So … we meant to ask you as Manny’s sister – if you would give us all a token,” Jesus Gonzales affirmed solemnly. “We pledge to avenge him by killing a dozen Japs each. Our solemnest promise, Adi!”

“Don’t be ridiculous!” Adi snorted. Yes, of course she was angry at the Japanese for killing her gentle brother Manolo, who only lived to get grease all over his hands and work on his engines until they were tuned and vibrated like the beating of a human heart. And they had attacked without warning, without a declaration of war, which to Adi’s understanding, was sneaky and unfair. But Jesus Gonzales, who was dark-eyed, lean, and handsome like a movie star, looked at her soulfully and begged again, until she relented. “Give me a moment.”

She went into her parent’s house – the house in the oldest part of town, into her room, and took out the chip-carved box with her most precious small things in it, considering a sacrifice of the scarf printed with that map of the Hawaiian Islands, the pictures of a tower and exotic flowers, and blue waves crashing on a white-sand shore; the scarf which had been a gift from Manolo. No, not that. She took instead another of her handkerchiefs, a pretty white cotton gauze handkerchief, printed with little blue flowers and green leaves, and the sewing shears from Mama’s sewing basket.

Out on the front porch, she met the cousins – dark-eyed romantic Jesus, hot-tempered Nando, and the others. “My token, that which you have asked for,” Adi said, as she crunched the scissor blades through the crisp-starched handkerchief; producing a dozen smaller squares, and struggled for something to say as she put them into the hands of that boy or this, thinking that this was absurdly like something from the old legends, or the movies on a flickering silver screen. She struggled for the right words. “Not in hate … Manolo didn’t hate, for he didn’t want to be remembered that way. But for the right, for justice and freedom, and for our people. For Manolo …” she lost the thread of her thoughts entirely, for Jesus and Nando reverently kissed the scraps of handkerchief as they were handed to them, and so did the other boys.

“Write to me?” Asked Jesus, at the last. “Promise, Adi!”

They all went off, in the following weeks, all with their small cheap suitcases packed, taking the weekly bus that was the only public transport then from Luna City to the wider world, and to the duty and colors which called them. Cousin Nando became a pilot, Jesus a cook with the Army, the others to service mundane or heroic as chance and temperament led them. Adi Gonzales was certain that every one of them took that little square of cotton handkerchief, printed with blue flowers.

Jesus Gonzales certainly did, for it was one of those small things which she found at the end in sorting out his things, after half a century of faithful marriage; a cotton scrap, discolored with age, so fragile that it practically fell apart in her hand as she took it out from his wallet.

But Mama … No, Mama never accepted that Manolo was gone from the world of the living. Against all evidence to the contrary; the telegram from the government, that Manolo never came home again, she insisted that he was alive and well, doing his patriotic duty for the war, still working in the engine-room of the battleship Arizona. Mama was first to the telephone – the telephone that was almost the first in Luna City in the household of a Gonzales or Gonzalez, certain every time that it was Manolo calling, long-distance. The war dragged on.

Even when it ended and the next began, Mama smilingly assured Adi and the family, their friends that Manolo was fine and happy in his work. For she had seen him frequently – or his likeness, in pictures of sailors on one ship or another, on shore leave, or in the newsreels in the movie theater in Karnesville. Mama did not allow the star on the flag which hung in the front window of their house to change from white to gold, and there was a wrapped gift on Three King’s Day for Manolo for many years to come. Now and again, Mama claimed that that she had talked to someone who had seen Manolo. In her later years, Mama even insisted that she had spoken with Manolo, on the telephone. In her final illness, she had opened her eyes one afternoon, and said to Adi – perfectly clear, “There is nothing to worry about, mi hija. Manolo has left insurance, to take care of us all.”

Some years after both Mama and Papi passed away, Adi’s nephew Roman and his wife celebrated their twentieth wedding anniversary with a trip to Hawaii. Roman and Conchita went to the Arizona Memorial, and surreptitiously left a bouquet of fragrant white plumeria flowers floating on the water; water still streaked with oil leaking from Manolo’s ship, iridescent streaks which the locals said were the tears of the ship, crying for her lost crew.

Roman and Conchita also went to the Punchbowl Cemetery. They brought back pictures. Adi is certain that Manolo is buried there, among the unknowns from the Arizona. After all this time, it hardly matters, really. But she likes to think of him, the strong young sailor in his white uniform, with his hands and fingernails from which the oil and grime that came from working engines would never quite be cleaned. She likes to think of him walking among the palm trees, plumeria and frangipani scenting the tropic air, the blue water and white foam, crashing on a sugar-white strand.

Now and again, Adeliza Gonzales-Gonzalez, who has not been called ‘Adi’ in years thinks she has seen Manolo, in a magazine picture accompanying some story to do with the Navy, or a sailor half-glimpsed in a television newscast. She is very careful not to say anything about this, of course.

(One Half Dozen of Luna City is now available as part of The Luna City Compendium #2, now in print as well as Kindle eBook.)

05. December 2019 · Comments Off on The Luna City Compendium Volumes are Available in Print! · Categories: Book News

The print version of Compendium #1 is here: #2 is here

The Kindle version of #1 is here; #2 is here.

After the current stock of single volumes that I have for direct sales is pared down, likely we will only have the compendium collections available when we do book events. And – once Book Nine is completed – then very shortly after that, we will put together the third compendium!

The Return of Clovis

It came not upon a midnight clear, but a fortnight before Christmas, that word of the return of Clovis Walcott (Colonel, US Army Retired) arrived in the Café.
This intelligence arrived through the medium of Colonel Walcott’s youngest son, Robbie, allowing in his usual artless manner, as he arrived for his usual Saturday morning shift,
“Hey, Dad is coming home! The Dubai job is done and dusted, he said. He called from Atlanta last night. Got a meeting with some possible clients there, but he’s coming home in time for Christmas.”
“I suppose that Mrs. Walcott is thrilled beyond words,” Richard observed, biting is tongue on his next impulse, to suggest that Sook Walcott, the most ferocious tiger mother in several counties, was looking forward to serving as a sort of bedroom sausage roll, now that her husband was on his way home.
“She is,” Robbie replied, appearing now somewhat mildly anxious, as he tied on his clean kitchen apron. “Oh, hey – Luc? Dad wants to speak to you. About your intentions towards Belle, I think. He sounded kinda serious.” Robbie sent a look towards Luc Massie, who was industriously scraping the grill station, after the breakfast rush. Luc – tatted to a fair-the-well, body-modified with studs and ear-piercings through which Richard could have passed a thumb, topped with a multi-colored Mohawk crest of hair – hardly reacted at all. Luc was, as Miss Letty McAllister allowed, one of those odd children who had never quite gotten the hang of comfortable social interaction with others of their species. A genius at the grill, whose command of the sauté station was above peer and beyond reproach, Luc also doubled as the drummer for a desperately unsuccessful local alt-rock band known as OPM. Which initials stood for anything and everything which began with the letters O, P, and M, since the band members couldn’t agree on an exact definition. Still, having invested in a logo incorporating those letters, and all gotten tats alike – they were pretty well stuck with the letters and logo. Now Brianna Grant, the other teenage apprentice, who was finishing the last of those garnishes required for luncheon service, heaved a deep sigh.
“Luc,” she called across the kitchen. “Belle’s dad will want to speak to you. You know – if you want to work the sex-magic with her. When and if she comes back from New York. You’d better think of something to say, when he asks you if you do. And something to say to her, if you don’t.”
Luc finally glanced up from the grill. He appeared – to Richard’s view – to be comprehensively rattled at having a human-reaction problem presented to him.
“What?”
Brianna sighed theatrically. “Luc – Belle’s dad is back in town. Belle; you know, you love her, et cetera, et cetera? Her dad will want to know if you are serious about doing the sex-magic with her, or anything more intense. I know – you need to think about this all, before you formulate an answer…”
“I do,” Luc replied, although no one in the Café’s kitchen was entirely certain of which question his answer was a reply.
“My advice to you, Mr. Massie,” Richard cut into the conversation, as it was obviously a distraction to all of his staff, “Is to take one long and searching look at young Belle’s maternal parent, and decide if you wish to be romantically-allied to a woman with her very same qualities in thirty years. As the twig inclines, so will the mature tree, given enough time. No criticism of your mother intended, Robbie; merely a statement of the realities.”
“Mom is a firecracker,” Robbie acknowledged with a sigh and a shrug. “And she was pretty upset when she caught Belle an’ Luc kissing in the boathouse.”
“Upset? Upset is as masterful a bit of understatement as I have ever heard from an Englishman,” Richard shuddered, remembering the epic diatribe following upon that unfortunate encounter. Sook Walcott had not just chastised her offspring, at length and top decibels, but had taken the time and trouble over the following days to lecture Luc (from the street below the windows of the bare-bones flat that he rented from Miss Letty) and to harass Richard himself at the tiny vintage Airstream caravan at the Age of Aquarius Campground and Goat Farm. Until Doc Wyler, the owner of the Café and much else of real (estate) value around Luna City, had called a halt to Sook’s maternal warpath, there was little peace to be had among the stately oaks and Beaux Arts-era facades of Luna City for those who had the ill-luck to be on the periphery of the most ill-judged mésalliance since Romeo and Juliet or perhaps Abelard and Heloise. In the spirit of the seaman in charge of the last lifeboat to leave the Titanic, Richard inquired of Robbie – the fortunately even-tempered youngest son – “I know how your dear mama feels about all this. Any indication that your father will be more … reasonable? Or if not reasonable, at least… considerably less operatically-unhinged about the matter?”
“I dunno,” Robbie confessed, with an expression of honest bafflement on his features; features which merged the four-square and ruggedly handsome bones of his father with the sloe-dark eyes, epicanthic fold and pale olive complexion of his mother, who was alleged to have descended from old Korean nobility. “Dad didn’t really say much, when Mom vented to him about Belle. All he said this time was that he wanted to have a talk with this Luc, as soon as possible when he got back home.”
“I expect that he was hard-put to get in a word edgewise,” Richard still wondered how on earth Clovis Walcott; an otherwise genial and even-tempered man, managed to endure marriage to the tempest of temperament that was Sook. Perhaps – perish the thought – Clovis privately enjoyed the drama.

So, it was no great surprise, three or four days later, when Clovis Walcott appeared; mid-morning, after the rush to serve breakfast and before the rush to organize for lunch. Doubtless the good colonel had consulted with Robbie; a touch of professional consideration which Richard greatly appreciated. The dining room was all but empty; Beatriz and Blanca were attending to the last of the morning crowd, when Clovis walked through the door, accompanied by the silvery jingling of the old-fashioned shop bell attached to it.
Richard, as was suitable for a manager of what he hoped would be the top-line purveyor of excellent cuisine in a charming, historically-significant location, appeared in the dining room – although he was drying his hands on a towel strategically tucked into his waistband as he did so.
“Colonel Walcott – welcome home! So happy to have you back again, among us! Robbie let it slip that you would return soon … a good lad, and a hard worker as well…”
“Glad to be home as well, Ricardo!” Clovis gave every indication that this was purely true, in that he shook Richard’s hand with enthusiasm and brotherly affection. “Might you have one or two of your cinnamon rolls … and a cup of that magnificent coffee as well? I’d like to have a word with your cook, Mr. Massie,” Clovis added, as he took a seat at the big table set before the picture window at the Café – the regulars’ table, or as the Stein’s called it, ‘the stammtisch.’
“Robbie … was good enough to tell me that you would want a quiet word with Luc … seeing that Miss Walcott is somewhat serious about his … umm, their mutually-romantic affections. If you like – the two of you can go out in back,” Richard offered, and Clovis shook his head.
“No, the stammtisch will do nicely – and the conversation won’t take but a moment. Just ask Mr. Massie if he will spare a few moments out of his busy day. There are some things that we have to get straight.”
Clovis Walcott’s face bore a stern expression upon it; Richard hoped devotedly that he would, after all this brief convo was done, that he would have a junior cook available to deal with the lunchtime grill orders.
“I hope that he doesn’t take very long with Luc,” he ventured to Araceli in a low voice as he passed the cash register desk. “Or leave much of a mess. A lot of blood on the stammtisch will be hard to explain to lunch customers.”
“Plus leaving us short of a cook,” Araceli murmured in reply. “But I wouldn’t worry, Chef – Clovis is actually an old softy. Most often he lets Sook be the bad cop; I think they have it down to a science.”
“Just … keep an eye on them both,” Richard advised over his shoulder as he stepped into the kitchen to tell Luc that doom was upon him. “Come and get me if it looks like the conversation is going sideways, or the daggers are coming out.”

(To Be Continued, of course!)