(OK, so I hope to have the next Luna City book available by November, 2017. Read and enjoy!)

Kitchen Work

“The work day in a restaurant kitchen starts early,” Richard had told his young prospective apprentices, halfway wishing that they would reconsider the whole thing. “Very early – as in before the crack of dawn; 5 AM to be precise.”

“Well, that’s all right,” Bree Grant chirped. “Gee-Nan and Grampy’s roosters tune up just outside my bedroom window, hours before sunrise, and Grampy gets up early to feed the goats.”

“And on those days when we serve supper at the Café – which will be those Friday and Saturdays around the holidays and special events,” Richard continued, hoping to dampen some of that juvenile optimism, as it made him feel very old, “Your work day will end at ten o’clock. Midnight if you are not on top of the game. Otherwise at around 3 PM, when everything for the following day is sorted.”

“That’s all right,” Bree was unquenched. “Anything to get out of eating Gee-Nans tofu and lentil barf.”

“Wait until you have spent a week scrubbing dishes, pots, and pans,” Richard warned. “That tofu-barf might start to look awfully good to you, then.”

“Never,” Bree looked obstinate, and Richard scowled. “Let me remind you; I am to be addressed as Chef. I will address you as Grant and I will not be contradicted. About the only thing I want to hear from you is a request for clarification, and it had better be a necessary request, let me tell you – is ‘Yes, Chef – immediately, Chef.’ Are we clear?”

“Yes, Chef,” Bree nodded. Richard obscurely pleased that she did not quit on the spot, said, “Good. See you tomorrow, Grant. Bright, early, and 4:30 sharp.”

“Yes, Chef.” Bree glowed happily, and Richard sighed for the resilience of extreme youth.

 

Bree was, in fact, waiting for him the next morning, when he opened the door to the Airstream. She was sitting on the old picnic table at the next camping-spot over, with her own bicycle leaning against it.

“Good morning, Chef!” she exclaimed, as Richard rolled out his bike, and Ozzie hopped into his basket on the back. “Is this early enough for you, Chef?”

“Grant, don’t talk to me and expect a civil answer until I’ve had twelve more inches of hot British caffeine in me.”

“Yes, Chef,” she answered, still irritatingly sunny.

 

To his mild astonishment, Robbie Walcott was sitting on the back stoop of the Café, waiting for them. An elderly Volvo sedan was parked in the space by the trash bins – obviously, he had driven himself. The Volvo was dented here and there, and splotched with rust and off-color primer paint – obviously the main transportation for the younger Walcotts.

Like Bree, Robbie was annoyingly cheerful. “Hi, Chef, Hi Bree. I didn’t want to be late on my first day. Dad always says if you are on time, you are early…”

“He would,” Richard unlocked the back door, and flicked on the lights in the kitchen; spick, span, and scrubbed tidy. “Well then, Grant, Walcott … by the time this summer is over – and if you last, you will be qualified to start in any restaurant in the land as a line cook. An extremely inexperienced one – but a line cook, none the less. I expect you to know where everything – every plate and pan, every ingredient, every tool – is in this kitchen by the end of today. Perishable storage is to the right – walk in cooler, and freezer. To the left, non-perishable. Through here – the main kitchen. Every such item here has a designated place, and by the end of the day, be in it; clean, polished and ready for continuing use. Am I clear so far?”

“Yes, Chef!” they chorused obediently. Bree bounced up and down on her trainer-shod feet. “I have a question, Chef – what are we going to learn, first?”

“Ah,” Richard smiled, dangerously. “How to wash dishes. And scour pots. And take a turn at peeling veg, and taking out the garbage. Still keen on learning classic French cuisine, the old-fashioned way?”

“Well, yeah, of course, Chef,” Robbie answered first, earnest and slightly baffled as to why it should be any other way. “Dad says that the right way to learn a job from the ground up is to start with the dirty stuff. And to handle a ration of crap. It’s a form of hazing, Dad says. A necessary ritual initiation, required to become part of an elite unit. Otherwise it just wouldn’t be the elite if just anyone could power through and carry out the unit mission. Dad says otherwise it’s participation trophies all the way around, and that’s no way to manage an elite organization. Not if the organization wants to go on being elite. Dad says…”

“Enough,” Richard held up a hand. It pained him to admit, even if only to himself, that Clovis Walcott – that is, Colonel Retired Clovis Walcott – had a point, albeit one pounded in with a sledgehammer. “You don’t need to tell me what your father says, again.”

“I really want to learn to cook, Chef,” Bree announced, her lower lip sticking out, mutinously. “Cook the right way, and anything that isn’t tofu-barf. And I’ll wash pots and take out the garbage, if that’s the deal. What comes next, when we know everything there is to know about dishwashing and peeling potatoes? When do we really start learning to cook.”

“In good time, Grant,  and in stages,” Richard smiled ferociously. “When you are sufficiently experienced at pearl-diving, then you move on to plating up cold salads, appetizers and desserts. Not actually making them – just putting them on plates in an attractive manner. Once you are adept with the cold foods, you will move on to plating the hot foods – side dishes, stews, or casseroles. Because this is a small establishment with limited menu options, I plan to combine those duties with managing the fryers. Should you succeed in not setting a massive fire which burns the place to the ground and actually dishing up edible servings of fried items, then it’s on to the sauté station. Ah, my innocent little novices – the sauté station will be the making or breaking of you. Lots of different foods, cooked in hot pans, all at the same time. Here again – because it is a small place, with a limited menu, I have combined it with the broiler-grill station; chops, burgers, hot sandwiches, sautéed fish. Attention to detail, unflappable in the face of distraction – that is what this station demands of the aspiring apprentice cook. In between breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I also plan to familiarize you with the mysteries of baking breads and sweet rolls, edible garnishes, and making soups and sauces. In larger kitchens, those are the province of dedicated specialists – but here in the Café …”

“You double up,” Robbie nodded, quite without guile or sarcasm.

“Indeed,” Richard continued. “What normally would take four or five years is being crammed into the space of three months … well, by the end of summer, should you last that long,” he added, parenthetically, “You will have the barest, slightest inkling of how to cook. And one more thing. Hygiene is of primary importance. You will wash your hands upon starting work, after using the facility, after handling raw food, eating, or touching your hair, face, clothing, coughing, or sneezing … in fact, go and wash your hands now, just on general principles.” He sighed again. “Every day, a clean apron – they are hanging up in the closet by the back door. Dirty ones go into the bin at the end of the day. The same for clean towels. The laundry truck comes once a week. But for now, mes enfants – go wash your hands and put on your aprons. The workday begins.”

 

“It has surprised me no end,” Richard confessed, not a week later, when Kate Heisel came out to the Age of Aquarius. Over the previous month, they had fallen into a habit; on Monday afternoons, after Richard had gotten a good night sleep after a weekend of eighteen-hour long days, and the Weekly Beacon had been put to bed, of Kate coming out to the Airstream for a light early supper, a progress report/strategy session, and a cuddle. Unfortunately, the scheduled cuddle was with Ozzie, who made no secret of his perverse adoration of Kate. Now the cat was curled up in Kate’s lap, as she lounged in the banquette seats in the caravan, her sensible shoes kicked off and a glass of Sefton’s marvelous mustang grape elixir at her elbow. Richard was fixing filet of sole bonne femme on the tiny gas stovetop, to accompany a dish of carrots caramelized with a bit of butter, ginger, and brown sugar.

“What has?” Kate asked, reasonably. The first two videos for Captain Kitten’s Kitchen had been shot, edited and posted, one with Mateo and Angelika, one with Robbie and Bree – all demonstrating simple dishes and techniques.

“The apprentices,” Richard answered. “Grant and Walcott … I have been brutal with them, my Kate of Kate Hall. Brutal, sarcastic, and demanding. Run them off their feet, hounding them every second, like a species of human sheep-dog, snapping at their heels. Do this – wash your hands – no, you imbecile, attend to the recipe card as it is written – and to what end?”

“Yes, what end?” Kate gave Ozzie a lingering caress, and Richard scowled at the sauté pan in which the sauce for the filets was thickening nicely.

“To no end! They are cheerful, obedient … every dish and pot in the place has been scoured to the nines – three times! The prep-work for the following day has been done – even before I ask for it! They say ‘Good morning, Chef!’ and ‘What can I do now, Chef?’ The walk-in cooler is cleaner and more neatly-arranged than I have ever seen it! Guests can hardly set down an empty cup or a plate, and Grant or Walcott is around to take it away. I am baffled, my Kate – baffled beyond words.”

“You shouldn’t be,” Kate grinned and held up her glass for a refill – which Richard was happy to do – seeing that it only was a half-step from cooker to refrigerator, and then to table. “You’re flattering them, Richard. You’re doing the courtesy of treating them like adults and not pulling your punches. Kids that age crave being treated like adults, not like delicate little children-orchids. And,” she added, taking a sip of Sefton’s glorious elixir. “That is what kids of that age want, more than anything else. To be treated as if they are grown-ups, to have real responsibility. Doesn’t matter if you’re the harshest, most demanding bastard on the planet. You’re being real and absolutely straight with them. And you are teaching them importing things. Bree wants to learn to cook, in the worst way …”

“Agreed with that,” Richard sighed. “She’s impulsive with the recipes, without sufficient grasp of the rules required to break them successfully.”

“But she wants to learn,” Kate continued. “So does Robbie. Now, he strikes me as being one of those kids who adores a challenge.”

“They certainly have it now,” Richard agreed, and Kate giggled.

“Reminds me of working on the school magazine when I was in high school.”

“I didn’t know there was such a thing in Luna City,” Richard racked his brain and came up empty, and Kate giggled again.

“No – I went to school at St. Scholastica’s in Karnesville. The guy who was taught the journalism class which produced the magazine was a crusty old Jesuit, who made his vows equally to God and the Chicago Manual of Style. He was as brutal to his students as you are to your apprentices – but we all adored Brother Gerald. He had high standards. When you finally succeeded in pleasing him, you had accomplished something, and you knew it was good. It was rough at first,” Kate admitted generously. “Getting back a story that you had slaved over covered with so many red marks it looked like an ink-bottle had exploded was a definite kick in the ego. And eventually, learning was achieved.”

“Life, alas, is full of kicks to the ego,” Richard poured himself another glass of wine. “Best learn to handle them and move on.”

“Speaking of moving on,” Kate gave an extra-thorough head-skritch to Ozzie. “Have you picked up any stray talk about the Mills Farm expansion?”

“Thou woundest me, Kate – that you would treat me as an informant, lurking around the tables, picking up gossipy tittle-tattle around the Café for your news stories!”

“I wouldn’t do anything of the sort!” Kate protested, although she had flushed rather pink. “No – I was just making conversation. If I wanted the straight scoop on that, I would go directly to Lew Dubois. I’m just a small-town newspaper reporter – and a weekly at that. I had just been talking to Great-uncle Jaimie last week – and he was going on about signing a hunting lease agreement with Mills Farm. He was so pleased – and it was all because of Lew. He came and talked to Uncle Jaimie a good few times, all dressed in a dirty barn-coat and muddy boots, explaining what it was all about… Uncle Jaimie was pleased as anything. He’s been next-door-across-the-river with Mills Farm since forever, and all he ever got out of them by way of outreach was Benny Cordova buying him drinks at the VFW now and again. Uncle Jaimie must be about the only property owner in Karnes County who doesn’t have a gas lease on his land.”

“Anti-fracking?” Richard stirred the sauce for the sole filets. “Supposed to cause earthquakes, you know.”

“No, just no one ever explained it to him that it wasn’t like the move Giant … an oil well spewing finest grade-a crude in a humongous pool over all of his pastures. Uncle Jaimie would rather not deal with all of that. He’s a guy from the last century – no, strike that. The century before the last.  A hunting lease is fine with him. Give him a break, Richard – he’s in his eighties. And … can I have another, Richard? I have a cat in my lap.”

“Seeing that it’s my cat…” Richard obliged, and topped up her wineglass. “Do continue, my Kate. The main entrée is nearly ready. What else is going on with this strangely diplomatic Dubois character?”

“Well, he has also managed to sweet-talk Judy and Sefton into sale of half an acre of their lad, with about sixty feet of river-frontage. Which is a mere sliver of what they do have, so I don’t think that is any great sacrifice. Which pleases Uncle Roman no end, because it means Judy and Sefton can repay him a good chunk of the costs for their new home … and he has a potential contract to build a new facility for Mills Farm – a riverside boat house, Uncle Roman says.”

“So Roman Gonzales profits coming and going,” Richard topped up his own wine-glass. The sauce was coming along nicely. “Nice work, if you can get it. Maybe I should have gone into carpentry and construction.”

“Too seasonal,” Kate replied. “And there’s at least as much demand around here for good cooking … oh, speaking of which – I’ll be a bit late next Monday, I’m afraid. Last-minute town council meeting, and it may run long.”

“Oh?” Richard felt his heart sink several centimeters. He hated having a routine disturbed. “What brought all this on? You couldn’t just skip it, could you?”

“I can’t,” Kate explained with careful patience. “It’s my job, so I have to go – as boring as town council meetings normally are. This one is special, though. Martin Abernathy sent out the meeting agenda to everyone who usually attends, and even posted something on the Chamber of Commerce’s Facebook page. The first order of new business is to discuss a bid to lease out the Cattleman Hotel to Venue Properties.”

“And this is significant? The place is a huge white elephant. The municipality can barely keep the lights on at the best of times.” Richard was well-acquainted with the bedraggled Belle Époque splendors of the Cattleman Hotel, as it took up half of the western side of Town Square. It once had been a quite splendid establishment, but it’s best days were now at least half a century in the past. There was a small museum in the old lobby, opened two days weekly by the Luna City Historical Commission, which maintained an office on the second floor. There were a handful of suites available to adventurous travelers, and a splendid and old-fashioned bar open with great fanfare on Founder’s Day weekend. Otherwise it served as a lumber room and overflow storage for the city, and most of the third and fourth floors had been abandoned to dust and slow decay.

“Too true,” Kate nodded in agreement. “Oh, thanks, Rich – that looks delish! I know – everyone loved the old place. I mean, half the elder citizens have fond memories of going to parties in the ballroom, or having supper … and everyone was up in arms when VPI first set up Mills Farm, and they wanted to buy the whole place for a dollar, disassemble it and rebuild someplace else. Before I was born, but Great-uncle Jaimie and Abuelita still spit fire when they talk about it. The VPI manager at the time – he thought that he could just waltz in, drop some money on the table and rip out part of the heart of Luna City. Although,” Kate added, as Richard set down his own serving on the table, and slid onto the banquete; Kate obligingly shifted her feet to allow him room, and continued. “I think the Bodies were pretty slick, gifting the place to the city, way back then. It was a dead weight to them and the tax advantages should have been obvious. Keeping the Cattleman open cost more than it would ever bring in, and that doesn’t even consider the costs of repairs and renovation. I’ll have the skinny on that after the meeting next Monday, anyway.” She took a delicate bite of the fish, and Richard was distracted by the expression of sheer gustatory delight which passed over her face. “I could eat this every night, Rich… are you going to offer this as a prix fixe option some weekend? Look, I don’t mind being your test subject. I’d beg to be … hey, you catch your own fish!” she reprimanded Ozzie, who had reached out a paw with the speed of light, aiming to snag the next bite from her fork.”

“The little blighter will have his own fish, my Kate – just dump him off your lap,” Richard savored his own first bites, and Kate protested.

“No, he’s our star kitten. Can’t we indulge him, just a bit?”

“Bad for his character,” Richard answered. “Trust me – I know this from first-hand experience. Enjoy your own supper, my Kate – I have prepared a special sweet for afters. But you don’t get your sweet until you finish your supper and veg.”

“Cruelty in the extreme,” Kate protested, but her eyes were merry and full of affectionate laughter, and Richard considered once again how very content he was with this new life; his café, his caravan and most of all, his Kate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From A Fifth of Luna City: Baby Dreams

Midnight, and Jess dreams.

She dreams of a hot dry desert, a desert where the winds blow dust as fine as talcum powder. But overhead, the sky is harsh and blue, and the world around here is the color of dust. Dusty green, dusty brown, dusty beige, dust without any color at all. Dust the color of tents, of motor vehicles, veiling the uniforms that they all wear, smudging their faces. He wears goggles over his eyes, stepping down from a Marine hummvee, shoving them up to his forehead as he does, the grin across his face making a cheerful boyish mockery of the strapped-on body armor, weapons and helmet which add to the male bulk of him.

“Jessie, darlin’!” he says in her dream, the quicksilver grin from ear to ear. The guy that she has loved since they were both eleven, the two of them horse-mad and given freedom of the Wyler stables and paddocks. “Fancy meeting you here, in the garden spot of the near east. We gonna go dancing tonight, or should we just sent out for pizza and watch an old movie?”

“Jamie, you nutcase,” she exclaims, wishing that they could embrace and kiss exuberantly – but they cannot, as there is a war on, they are both in uniform and there are people around, most of them male and of much higher military rank than Jess the reservist. He kisses her anyway, a brotherly peck on the cheek, and she whispers, “How long can you stay?”

“Just long enough to top up,” he answers. “MarDiv’s on the move. Can’t say anything more, even if I did know. Op-sec.”

“Of course,” she says – her heart sinking within her, but her voice as calm, stoic as a Spartan woman. “Be careful out there, Jamie.”

“Always,” he answers, but he simmers with suppressed excitement. She casts around for something to say, some brief gesture to make. “I got a care package from home last night – Pops sent me some Moon Pies that didn’t get too much melted. You wanna take some with you?”

“Whatever you can spare,” His eyes gleam with anticipation. Moon Pies are his favorite sweet. The first summer that Jamie spent at the Wyler Ranch, it was their special excursion to ride out to the Tip Top Icehouse, Gas & Grocery to buy Moon Pies with their allowance money, and to eat them by the riverbank, dangling bare feet in the cool river, while he tried to frighten her by telling long-ago stories of the scar-faced tramp who lived out in the woods below the old Sheffield place.

“Wait right here,” she commands him; Jamie grins again.

“Yes, ma-am!”

She runs to the quarters that she shares with the other Air Force woman officers; spartan but more comfortable than a shelter-half over a slit-trench. But when she returns with half a dozen Moon Pies, Jamie is not where she left him; a moment of panic – where did he go? Oh, there – already back in the vehicle, leaning out the driver-side window, waving to her.

She passes the Moon Pies up to him; the engine already turning over, no time, no time, only a hasty word of thanks from him, she forms the words “I love you” with her lips, and then the line of drab-tan vehicles rumbles away, sending up another cloud of dust, and they are gone, anonymous in the featureless desert.

 

That was the last time she ever saw Jamie, in anything but dreams and memories. The air conditioner unit is an older one, and when it clicks on it does so with a wheeze and a rush of cooler air. This wakes Jess, or brings her up to the edge of wakefulness. The summer in South Texas is as hot as always; Jess and Joe both sleep best in a cooler room, and so the air conditioner runs all night. Her hands feel numb, and her wrists ache a little; a weird side-effect of pregnancy. She rolls over and settles in to sleep again. Joe’s arm goes around her, in that new position; an automatic gesture, for he is soundly asleep.

 

In the small hours of the morning, Jess dreams again.

 

In that new dream, she is eleven years old; it is her birthday and Pops – widowed and grieving the loss of Jessica’s mother not two months before – has promised her a special birthday present. Jess swings her feet as she sits at the breakfast table, wondering what the present can be, since it was not wrapped in paper and tied with ribbons, like the gifts from her grandparents.

“Tell me, Pops!” she begs again, and Martin Abernathy smiles, teasing her in a way that had been in abeyance for months, all the time that her mother was so sick.

“Can’t tell you, Jessy-bell. It would ruin the surprise. I will tell you one thing, though … it’s bigger than a bread-box!”

“Pops! That’s no fair! What is it?”

“A surprise,” Martin says, and Jess pouts a little.

“Pops, you can be so provoking!” she exclaims. That is a word she heard her mother say, now and again. Jess knows what it means, but has never actually said until now. Martin’s amusement dims, just a little, like a candle flickers in a sudden gust of wind.

“Part of my happy inconsequent charm, Jessy-bell,” he replies. Jess is not quite certain what ‘inconsequent’ means, although she knows the other words. She would question her father more, but for the sound of a large pickup truck, bumping down the long gravel drive past the house. The house where Martin and Beth set up housekeeping is on the edge of Luna City, in a small post-war bungalow built on a large lot with a corral and a large shed at the back – a shed divided into disused horse stalls, where Martin keeps the gas lawnmower, and Jess the bicycle that she rides to school, where she must wear thick glasses to do school work and the other children tease her by calling her “Jessie Four-Eyes.”

The truck tows a horse trailer; both trailer and truck adorned with the logo of the Wyler Lazy-W exotic game ranch. Everyone in Luna City knows the Wyler brand, and knows Doc Wyler by sight. Jess is no exception; he is an important man, even aside from being the veterinarian. And why should Doc Wyler be driving around to the back of the Abernathy house? They don’t have any pets. Jess does not know the boy with him, who climbs down from the passenger side of the truck and stands looking at Jess, standing on the back-door stoop. The boy is her age; wiry and with a grin that lights up his face. If he were from Luna City, she would know him, and if he is the same age, they would be in the same grade at school. It is a puzzle; Jess cannot resist questions and puzzle-solving.

“You best come and meet your birthday present, Jessy-bell,” Martin comes up behind her, resting his hands on her shoulders. At first, Jess does not comprehend. What present? But Doc Wyler is opening the back of the horse trailer and leading out the horse in it by the halter, with many soothing words. The horse is a chestnut quarter horse with a white blaze on it’s nose, small even for a quarter horse; a young gelding who dips his muzzle into Jess’s hands and blows out an alfalfa-scented gust into her shirt-front.

“Here you go, young lady,” Doc Wyler gives the halter-end to Jess. “His name is Stinker, on account of having been painfully surprised by a skunk when he was a colt, but I reckon you can call him anything you like. He was sired by a champion cutting horse, his mama was showed by my daughter Pamela in dressage events, but he growed up a mite dwarfish, so your father thought he’d be a perfect horse for you.”

“Mine?” Jess couldn’t comprehend at first. A whole horse, a real horse of her own? Only twice in her later life was Jess Abernathy rendered completely speechless. At last, she finds words. “Oh, Pops – he’s beautiful! And mine, really all mine?”

“Yes indeed, Jessy-bell – all yours.” Martin squeezed her shoulders in reassurance. “Your …” his voice broke, just for a second. “… Mama said that you should have one, when you were old enough. I reckon that you are, this very day. He’ll live here; out at the back – but you have to take responsibility for him. You must ride him every day. Give him a good brushing, make certain that he has good feed, is watered every day, put away in the shed at night …

“We brought along one of Pam’s old saddles,” Doc Wyler was saying. “Should serve well enough. Jamie, you want to get it from the truck? You haven’t met my grandson, have you? Pam’s son. He’s going to spend the summer with us. Jamie, this is Jess and Martin Abernathy. Martin and his folks keep the hardware store on the Square.”

“James Wyler, Junior,” the boy put out his hand and shook Jess’. “But mostly, I’m Jamie. Pleased to meet you, miss. Mr. Abernathy.” His grip is firm, adult, his gaze direct.

“Hi…” Jess is at a complete loss and stares at the ground. She likes boys as friends, but this one is a stranger. But she begins to like this one, when he offers to help saddle Stinker. And she likes him even more, when he promises to come over the following day on his own horse. And he doesn’t know any of the other kids their age, since he is only visiting for the summer. Jess barely notices the satisfied look that Martin and Doc Wyler exchange over their heads.

 

Jamie spends every summer at the Wyler Ranch, until he drops out of college in the second week of September, 2001, and enlists in the Marines.

 

 

The bladder complained. Jess sighed and slid out from the bed, from under the embrace of her husband and the tangle of bedclothes, obeying the call of nature. The bedroom was comfortably cool. That being done, she crept back into bed, curling herself spoon-fashion against the bulwark that was always and forever Joe.

 

Jess dreams some more.  She has been living in Arlington for three years and working as a traveling CPA.

 

She has just completed a demanding temporary job in Corpus Christi, another starting in San Antonio – and a too-brief weekend at home in Luna City between them. A good reason to rush, in the little yellow Wrangler with two suitcases, her laptop carrier and her briefcase thrown into the back seat. Oh, to be at home for a couple of days in the spring, when the fields around Luna City are ablaze with yellow and red Mexican hat, purple field verbena and blue and white buffalo clover, which everyone calls bluebonnets, and esperanza splashes flaming yellow in all the hedges … and that is flaming yellow, red, and blue lights on Route 123. Jess, absent-minded and thinking of nothing but home – after months away, sorting out other people’s financial woes – does not think at first that she is the driver at fault.

Until the police car flashes headlights emphatically at her. And she is the only driver on 123 at that moment. Jess is a law-abiding person – as a licensed CPA, she can be nothing less, not without escaping severe penalties. She signals an obedient right turn, comes to rest on the shoulder, half on grass and half on asphalt. The police cruiser rests in similar position behind her. Jess waits, heart hammering with apprehension. The economic penalty she can easily cover, the absolute humiliation of a traffic ticket within a few miles of Luna City is … humiliating.

The cop gets out of his car, Jess observing in the rear-view window; he is tall, muscular, well-built, walking with an Alpha-male swagger; she estimates his age as in the late thirties, and approves – setting aside all other considerations. A nice bit of man-flesh, all told. Clean-cut, not run to seed in the least. Mirrored sunglasses hide his eyes, as he approaches her Wrangler. Jess sighs and rolls down the window.

“Good morning, ma’am. Do you know how that you were going?”

“Well, over the speed limit, obviously officer … or you wouldn’t have pulled me over.” Even in dreams, Jess has a smart mouth. The officer sighs – a bit on the theatrical side, Jess thinks. She also thinks that he looks familiar, somehow. He has sergeant’s stripes on his sleeves, and the name-plate on his tan uniform shirt is a clue. “Vaughn.”

“I know you!” she exclaims. “Joe Vaughn – you were the quarterback with the Moths, when I was a freshman in high school.”

“Yes, ma’am; varsity, in my senior year. May I see your identification, please?”

Jess sighs, resigned, and reaches into the enormous hand-bag/briefcase which serves her as both. It’s been fifteen years and a lot of water under the bridge, but no one could forget Joe Vaughn, high school hero – and besides, he took Jamie’s older cousin Patricia to the prom. The all-American golden couple, back then. He probably believes that I’m trying to charm him out of issuing a ticket, Jess thinks, as she hands him her drivers’ license.

He takes off his mirrored sunglasses to look at it more closely, and exclaims, “Hey – Now I remember; you’re little Jessie Four-Eyes! Used to hang out with Pat’s cousin Jamie all the time. Gotta admit I like the improvement; makes all the difference in the world.”

“Lasik surgery,” Jess winces. That nick was something she had managed to bury, along with all the usual adolescent humiliations heaped on the plain but clever of the female of the species. Still, she is not immune to male admiration, especially from one who had been well out of her reach, back then.

“So, what have you been doing with yourself since then?” Joe is still holding her drivers’ license; Jess doesn’t quite have the nerve to take it back from him.

“This and that,” Jess replies. “The usual; college, a turn through ROTC and the Reserves, now I’m working for the Manfred Group out of Arlington, but I hope to set up my own office in a couple of years. Too much time on the road. Sorry – I guess I do have a bit of a lead foot. I’m home for this weekend. I didn’t know that you were back in Luna City – I thought you were still in the Army.”

“Was,” Joe finally returns the drivers’ license. “Short version is that I blew out my right knee, the other isn’t in much better shape. The Big Green machine called it a disability and wouldn’t allow me to reenlist, so I hired on with the Luna City PD once I was home. So … you’re gonna be home this weekend. You wanna meet for a burger or something?”

“That would be nice,” Jess is flattered. For the big man around the high school campus, the teenaged Joe Vaughn wasn’t nearly as much the insufferable asshole that he could have been. And he is improved now in a good way, and Jess approves wholly. Now he is scribbling in his notebook. Reading upside down, she realizes with mild dismay that it is the ticket book.

“I still gotta write you a ticket,” he confesses, with a touch of embarrassment. “You were going 85 and the limit on this stretch is 70. I can’t be … well, making exceptions. For anyone. Matter of principle with me, I guess. But that’s my cellphone number. I’m living in my grandparents’ old house on Oak Lane. Your pop has the number for the dispatcher; they can get ahold of me any time, if your still serious about that burger.” Joe seems a little apprehensive – as if he thinks she isn’t interested at best and despises him at worst, for just doing his job without fear or favor.

“Or something,” Jess accepts the ticket with mixed feelings and a smile.

“You can pay it at the city offices during the week,” Joe says, kindly. “Or go online anytime. See you … um, Saturday work for you.”

“Sure.” Jess has decided that she will go out with him, even if it is only as far as the Dairy Queen in Karnesville, just to be assured that she has left Jessie Four-Eyes in the distant, distant and painfully adolescent past. “See you around.”

“You too.” He grins, obviously relieved. Jess sets the Wrangler in gear, and as she drives toward Luna City, she sees the cruiser pull a U-turn, and vanish in the opposite direction.

 

Jess wakens from that final dream; there is dim daylight behind the curtains of the bedroom, but that is not what has disturbed her sleep, or the complaints of a stressed bladder. No, something else, a funny tentative flutter low in her abdomen. It happens again – no, not a bubble of gas working through … but independent, deliberate. Something not of her body.

“Joe?” she whispers; they are still lying spoon-fashion in the bed, she is tucked into the curve of his body. “Are you awake? It’s nearly morning.”

“Mmm. Sure, Babe. I’m awake.” He mumbles indistinct and sleep-fogged. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” she answers. “I just felt the baby move.”

(We hope to have the next episode of the Luna City Chronicles out by Christmas this year. Here, a chapter from A Fifth of Luna City, wherein Richard makes a new friend, and takes on an obligation a little more challenging than a potted plant and a female significant other.)

 

A Sky Full of Stars

“Richard … I have to tell you. I have bad news – the most appalling news. I don’t quite know how to say this, but …”

That was Kate, his super-dainty Kate, her face expressing a mixture of horror and regret. Only his own sense of shock and possibly his own gentlemanly upbringing belatedly coming to his rescue – miraculously coming down from the heights of his prolonged classical venture into French cuisine on her behalf – kept him from blurting out his initial reaction: “Jesus, Kate – you can’t be pregnant! We’ve never even slept together!”

Instead, he just looked at her as if pole-axed, and said, “Well, tell it to me, Kate. I’ve had a long day, starting with being bullied in an open boat by an OAP with a bad attitude, and coming close to drowning in a flooded river. Frankly, I don’t think there is any more bad news you can tell me.”

“Well then,” Kate drew a deep breath. “My informant is one of the techies involved with A La Carte with Quartermayne. It’s a traveling TV food show. If you don’t know anything about it, Abuelita does, and so does everyone else who watches the Food Channel. They’re coming to Luna City at the end of summer, for a food showdown…”

“No, absolutely not,” Richard was stone-faced. “I will not participate in one of those travesties. I will not be a performing monkey on a lead for the entertainment of the masses. Again. If I see a TV camera within half a block of me, I will turn around and go home. I’ve been there, Kate. It’s Hell. I’ve learned my lesson – and won’t do it again.”

“No, it’s not for the Café,” Kate swiftly reassured him, those amazing beryl-green eyes huge with sympathy. “The showdown will be between the Pryor’s Meats and BBQ, and the Mills Farm Country Kitchen. But the co-host of Quartermayne this season is someone that … well, you know. And according to my informant…”

“Your spy in the enemy camp,” Richard amended, dryly.

“Whatever. You and he have a long history – Phillip Noel-Barrett.”

Richard broke out in a cold sweat, despite the residual heat in the kitchen.

“Stone the crows, not him – that unregenerate tosser! What malignant plan is that unmitigated arse-monger up to now? Nothing good, I’ll warrant. And those Quartermayne berks better be on their guard, because if he does half the damage to the immediate vicinity as he did with that wretched movie…”

“I see that you remember him fondly also,” Kate commented with just the faintest touch of acid. “It looks like he will be up to some nasty tricks with regard to yourself. In a moment of …”

“Alcohol-fueled frankness,” Richard supplied and Kate grinned.

“Exactly what I assumed. He is planning to reveal you as the Bad Boy Chef – not resting serenely sedated in some expensive loony-bin, but working happily away in an obscure little town café. My contact says that Noel-Barrett is practically slavering at the chops in his eagerness to do you a bad turn.”

“He always was a malicious little git,” Richard sighed. What a way to finish an evening – a beautiful evening, which had topped off a very long and fraught day. “I’ll do my best to stay out of the way, Kate. I don’t want to be outed, much less by Pip Noel-Barrett. I like it here. I like the Café, my little caravan, Luna City and all. I don’t want to leave. But I cannot go back to the old life. I won’t go back. It wasn’t good for me. I know that now.”

“Don’t worry, Richard,” Kate shrugged her outsized overcoat over her shoulders once again. Her face bore an expression of adamantine determination, fearsomely like that of Abuelita Adeliza Gonzales when that formidable lady put her foot down. “We’ll see that you are kept safe, doing what you love to do, and doing it in Luna City. You have friends here, not just me … although Acey McClain – he’s my boss, you know? At the Beacon. He might just begin to wonder about where my loyalties lie, if he ever hears about this caper.”

“Thank you, Kate,” Richard wondered if he was being honestly grateful for the very first time in his so-called adult life. They stood very close, at the back door to the Café, near to the vast pot-washing sink and the industrial dishwasher, which smelled very faintly of dishwater and drains. But they stood so close, as he intended, somewhat reluctantly, to see her out – and he detected the perfume that Kate was accustomed to wear. On an impulse, he leaned down – not very far down – and kissed her, intending the kiss to land in a brotherly, even an avuncular manner. But the minx turned her head at the last second, and it landed on her lips. For a brief eternity, he was lost – Kate, his wonderful Kate of Kate Hall, his super-dainty Kate, before whom all his previous passions, or whatever they had been – were momentary shallow flirtations. Until she pulled back, grinned at him and said,

“That was a kiss to set all records, Richard – perhaps one day, we’ll set another one like it. But I have to go now. ‘Celi will wonder where I am. If I don’t get on my way this instant, she will call Joe to go and get me – and Jess will be furious. Good night, sweet prince; blessed angels see the to thy rest. I have to go.”

“Indeed,” Richard gave a wistful sigh for the night that might have been – but no, it wouldn’t have been right. He and Kate had worlds enough and time. The thought of a wrathful Joe Vaughn, the Luna City chief of police, bashing down the door of the Airstream to haul a weeping and half-dressed Kate into the cruiser was a thought to banish all erotic fantasies, right then and there. “Do you want me to walk you to Patrick and Aracelis’? It’s not far.”

“No, mon cher Richard – you must be exhausted after all this. I’ll be all right. We’re in Luna City, after all.” She stepped neatly out of his half-hearted embrace and opened the outer door. Outside, a shy quarter moon rationed silver light on the back of the Café and the buildings adjoining it on Town Square. A few small lights from the back windows of the Stein’s place, and from the rooms over the small businesses in the other direction, rented out on BnB to those who wanted a small-town Texas experience, cast a dimmer and more golden light. “Oh, look – your cat is still here.”

“I don’t have any pets…” Richard insisted obstinately. “It must be one of the Steins’ perishing little beggars. Wretched things – they pee all over the carpet inside, and crap all over the garden outside.”

Kate peered at the small, shadow-shape lurking in the depths of the hedge between the Stein’s garden – a garden groomed to a state of perfection with a Teutonic devotion to detail, in vivid contrast to the space of crumbling macadam interspersed with weeds and rubbish bins behind the Café. That space was currently interrupted with the Airstream, and a couple of timber-framed raised beds, in which Richard nourished cooking herbs and a crop of exotic salad greens.

The small shadowy shape mewed at her. It sounded commanding, rather than querulous and pathetic, as Richard would have expected a lost or temporarily discommoded cat to sound.

“It’s too small for Beethoven, Bach or Mozart,” Kate observed. The Stein’s musical trio were sheltered, spoiled, well-fed and of considerable size. “Annise would never let them outside in this weather anyway.”

“The flood brought in all sorts of animal flotsam and jetsam,” Richard sighed, thinking on the outsized dog, miniature pony, bantam hen and stray goat, confined in a makeshift corral by the VFD. “A stray, I suppose.”

“Be kind,” Kate said, and in the shadows behind the Café, Richard was sure that she was smiling at him. “Give the poor little thing some of that lovely chicken, or whatever. Good night, Richard – sleep well.”

“I will, even if lonely,” Richard sighed. Quite suddenly, the burden of total exhaustion fell upon him, a burden which rocked him to his knees. “Honestly, I couldn’t have done justice to the occasion if you had even wanted to spend the night with me. I’ve got some pride left in me, Kate.”

“I know,” Kate blew a kiss in his direction, and departed without another touch of her hand or lips, walking swiftly to the bottom of the desolate patch which was the Café’s back garden. Richard thought that she turned and waved at him, before she vanished around the corner of the Stein’s garden-shed/garage.

The evening was over.

And on the whole, it had been a success beyond his dreams, Richard thought, as he turned out the lights in the Café, and sent the last of the dishes and glasses into the commercial washer. A long day, and a hard day; a supper with Kate, and space enough and time to meditate upon where their mutual attraction should go. Bad news about Pip Noel-Barrett’s malicious intentions … but that was consummation months in advance. Sufficient unto the day were the evils thereof, as the school chaplain used to say. Today’s troubles were enough for today.

He got out one of the folding chairs from the Airstream, and sat beneath the inconsistent moon, with a glass of Sefton Grant’s marvelous elixir, contemplating the day, in all of it’s exhaustion and glory, obscurely grateful that he didn’t have to get up on the bicycle and pedal all the way back to the Age of Aquarius. Because of the flood and the good offices of Roman Gonzalez, the Airstream caravan that he called home had been temporarily moved from the campground and small farm where it had sat for at least three decades. His daily commute was reduced to a matter of fifteen steps … and the cat suddenly interrupted these meditations. It emerged from the dividing hedge, and sat not five feet from him.

“Mrrow?” It said. Startled out of his reverie, Richard answered.

“What’s that, old chap?”

“Mrroow!” replied the cat, one eye reflecting the pale moonlight. “Mrroow!” it said again, with added emphasis and air of cold command, which well those passions Richard read.

“All right, then!” Richard set aside his glass, and went into the Café kitchen, to the walk-in cooler, where reposed the container with the last of the chicken from his glorious supper with Kate. He brought out a small bowl, filled to the brim with some-barely cooled shredded chicken and crumbled bits of pate, and carefully locked the back door after him – wondering why he bothered at all, since Luna City was one of the most casually law-abiding places that he had ever set up residence in, however temporary. He set the dish down, and the cat fell upon it with every evidence of glutinous pleasure. When it had polished the dish clean, it approached Richard, still nursing half a glass of Sefton’s mustang white, and sat at his feet. A small pink tongue polished its’ whiskers, one swipe a side, as the cat assumed the expectant posture of one of those ancient Egyptian statuettes of cats.

“Mrroow,” it commented, sounding slightly less commanding.

“You’re welcome,” Richard replied. “But no, I don’t care if you want some wine to go with supper. This is all mine.”

“Mrroow!” The cat sounded slightly disappointed – as if it had hoped for that, but was sporting about being turned down. Seen now in the dim interior light shining through the Airstream’s screen door, it stood revealed as a small brindle animal, with one eye as pale and lifeless as the moon overhead, the other dark and brimming with feline mysteries. Richard was no great judge of cat-flesh, but he thought it was a young animal, despite the blind eye. It regarded him steadily with the other eye, as Richard communed with his glass of wine, coming down from the mighty cloud of terror or exertion expended during a day only a little longer than what he had been accustomed to in his early days as an apprentice chef. Since he didn’t have Kate to talk to, he directed his remarks to the young cat.

“So … rough day for you too, Ozymandias-King-of-Kings? Look upon your works, oh mighty, and despair. Nothing remains … but a hell of a lot of flood water.”

“Mrroow,” the cat commented, sounding rather forlorn.

“Sorry about that, old chap. Just worked out that way. Global warming, you know – but in Texas they call it ‘the weather’. Still a bit disconcerting, especially if one has an aversion to drowning.”

“Mrroow,” Ozymandias-King-of-Kings agreed. Richard sank the last little bit of Sefton’s prize white mustang grape wine. When he had drained the glass of that last mouthful, the brindle cat was sitting at the foot of the step to the Airstream, regarding him expectantly. “Mrroow?” That last had a kind of tentative, yet commanding sound to it. Richard marveled again, at the depth of feeling that the beast could put into a single sound. The Librarian of the Unseen University had nothing on this cat.

“All right, you conniving little beggar.” Richard sighed, and opened the screen door; instantly, Ozymandias-King-of-Kings hopped up into the Airstream as if it was his by rights. He-She-It strolled through the brief sitting area and kitchenette, sniffing at the odd item in a way that suggested judgmental skepticism, but marginal acceptability as to conditions. And then hopped up onto the disturbed bedding at the foot of the single double bed at the back of the Airstream, licked itself several times in businesslike fashion, curled into a neat circular form among the blankets and dropped into whatever was for a cat, deep, deep slumber. When Richard performed his late-night ablutions,  resumed the pajama trousers which were his customary night things, and took his own place in the bed, Ozymandias only burped – or perhaps farted – briefly, purred for a bit and fell back into deep slumber nearly as soon as Richard did.