Seven Buttons and a German Bayonet

(So, this answers something about the cliff-hanging ending of a Fifth of Luna City – but not the big question of who the unnamed Scar-Faced Tramp was, or how he came to be in Luna City six or seven decades ago.)

Richard stared into the box; like the others present, with a mixture of horror and curiosity. No one quite wanted to touch the skull; jawless, with the open eye-holes still partly-clogged with the damp earth from which it had been dug. The bayonet with the German maker’s initials lay to one side, and Joe Vaughn was quietly bagging up the deformed metal bullet in a small zip-lock bag which Jess had produced from the suit-cased sized diaper bag. There were about half a dozen small corroded metal items knocking around in the bottom of the box, objects about the size of a 10p coin. Allen Lee Mayne reached over Richard’s shoulder and picked up one of them.

“A button,” Richard observed, and Allen Lee nodded, and gently buffed away the grime and corrosion with a paper napkin. “Looky here – it’s got some kinda raised design on it. Can you make it out?”

“Looks like military,” Joe ventured. “An eagle and an anchor, under an arch of stars. Navy, mebbe. You got another baggie, Jess?”

“Either our mystery man shopped at the Army Navy store, or he was a soldier,” Richard ventured, and Allen shook his head.

“Man, that’s an old Marine Corps button. Really old. Their buttons have had a globe on them now, along with the eagle and anchor. My old man was Marine in Vietnam, that’s how I know this sh*t.”

“Let me look, cher,” That was Lew Dubois, his expression yet more serious. “Ah, yes – what I thought; It is an old Marine overcoat button. My dear Grand-père Lucien for whom I am named – he served in the Marines. He fought in the great battle in the Belleau Wood, and he had his old overcoat, one with buttons just like this! He used to wear it on cold mornings, when he took me duck-hunting on the bayou. He was very old, and I was just a boy, and his namesake – a special treat for me, to go hunting with my grandfather. That is why I recollect so clearly.”

“I don’t think that this is your grandfather,” Richard belatedly wished that he hadn’t spoken, for Joe, Lew, and Allen Lee all looked at him with severely condemning expressions. “Sorry – a bit of misplaced levity, chaps, for which I apologize. But the fact remains; this is a dead chap, of some vintage. Not, perchance, one of yours? That is – local to Luna City. You wouldn’t have misplaced one of your own, all these years ago?”

Both Araceli and Jess shook their heads, and Jess answered, “I’d have to double-check with Miss Letty, of course, but I am pretty certain that just about all the Luna City volunteers for WWI were for the Army.”

“Looks like whoever he was – he got his Purple Heart the hard way, and no mistake,” Joe looked down at the deformed and scarred skull, with an expression which Richard found hard to decipher. “Not from here, then. Drifted into here … wasn’t there some tale locally about a scar-faced drifter? I’m sure Kate wrote about it, coupla weeks ago. Weird-looking guy, used to haunt the place, back during the Depression?”

“The Scar-Faced Tramp,” Araceli replied, and the light of blooming comprehension shone on every face. “Katie interviewed Abuelita for that story! The Tramp frightened her into running home screaming – she was only five or six at the time,” Araceli added hastily, for no one present could imagine Abuelita Adeliza, the elderly absolute ruler of the sprawling Gonzales-Gonzalez, running screaming in terror from anything less than a fire-breathing tyrannosaurus rex. “Her mother scolded her when she got home. The scar-faced man was only a poor vagrant, living in a camp in the woods, who got by on doing odd jobs for people in town. I’ll call Katie – she’s be thrilled to know about this!”

“Must you?” Joe finished bagging the buttons, all seven of them. “Can you wait a day or so? Look, I don’t want to make a big media thing about this until we have some positive answers.  Can you give me enough time to let me set up an investigation with the county sheriff’s office – and whoever they have available for an emergency dig – before unleashing the media hounds on us?”

“Katie isn’t a media hound!” Araceli was indignant. “She has better sense than that, and she is one of us: OK, second cousin by marriage – but she is one of us!”

“Indeed,” Richard agreed, with a small clearing of his throat. “Miss Heisel has been … well, remarkably restrained and discrete, with regard to my own rather fraught position with the national press. I would be inclined to trust her, as being sensitive to local concerns. She’s a good egg,” Richard finished, with a sense that he was being particularly lame. He strenuously ignored Araceli’s muttered footnote. “Yeah, she’d love to jump your bones, Chef – given any sort of encouragement,” as well as Allen Lee’s distinctly lewd chuckle of agreement.

“All right then,” Joe nodded, as he placed the two plastic bags in the cardboard box with the skull. “Lew … I’m sorry, this will put a crimp in your construction schedule. The work gotta be on hold until forensics can go over the area. Nothing I can do about a delay, but I promise, I’ll do what I can to instill a sense of urgency.”

“It is not a problem, cher,” Lew sounded extraordinarily mellow for a corporate executive whose’ multi-million-dollar project was now on the tipping-point of failure – or at least, an expensive delay – through being delayed by the inconvenient circumstance of a dead body found at the construction site. Even if the dead body was – by Richard’s estimate and his vague recall of Kate talking to him about her months-ago feature story – at least six or seven decades old. Now, Lew added, in philosophical tones, “There is no urgency for this poor fellow. It has been a long time. Still … we should know something, I t’ink. Of who he was, and of his passing. If he was a comrade of my dear Grand-père Lucien … for the honor of that service a hundred years ago – I owe him that generous consideration. My time and interest are at your disposal with regard to this puzzle, Chief Vaughn.”
“Appreciated,” Joe nodded, bundling up the box under one arm, and collecting up the baby carrier with his other. “Hey – ‘Celi, make our order a take-out, can you? Jess is bushed, and I wanna get my family (and perhaps only Richard noted the special emphasis with which Joe said those two words) home and settled. ‘Kay, Babe? Gotta cold case to work,” he added to Jess, who actually did appear pretty pale, frazzled and exhausted.

“My time and interest, too.” That was Allen Lee, most unexpectedly. “My Daddy served at Khe Sanh. Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines. Daddy would want this. Count me in.”

“Right, then,” Joe said. “I’ll put out the word.”

 

(Richard, and four other Lunaites have committed to babysitting Joe and Jess’ baby son for a week. Richard, having worked up from a potted plant to a cat, is now ready for the care of a small human being … or is he?)

He had nearly forgotten about it all – or at least, shoved the trepidations to the farthest and most neglected corner of his mental attic, when the Café’s door opened and shut to a musical jingle, and Jerry appeared, with the baby – a tiny pink-faced morsel dwarfed by a monumental stroller. Richard could verily swear that he had seen smaller motorcycle sidecars. The enormous necessity bag was stowed at the back of the stroller. With some difficulty, Jerry maneuvered it through the dining room and into the kitchen. Richard was there alone; Robbie and the girls having capably dealt with the with the most immediate pressing post-lunch-rush chores.

“Here we are!” Jerry announced. “Little Joe is all ready to spend quality time with Unca Richard.” He almost succeeded in concealing a yawn. “He’s already had his midday bottle – you’ll want to give him another just before five. It’s in the side pocket of his ditty-bag with an ice-pack to keep cold. Just warm it up before you give it to him. Blood warm is about the right temperature. Remember, how I showed you how to hold him for feeding? Yeah, that. Remember to burp him, when he’s done – and check his diaper, too – he’ll probably poop again, just to make room for the fresh intake.”

“What do I do with the little … little tyke until then?” Richard demanded. He had almost made himself forget his promised child-minding obligation.”

“No idea,” Jerry yawned again. “Talk to him. Play simple games, pay attention to him, stimulate his imagination.  That is, when he isn’t sleeping, eating, or pooping. Use your own … sorry … imagination. See you tomorrow, the same time. Chris will take over from you at five-thirty.” Upon delivering this dispiriting intelligence, Jerry took himself out the door – the bell chiming musically. Little Joe and Richard looked at each other.

“Goosh,” commented Little Joe, blowing a spit-bubble. It sounded philosophical; neither hostile or overly-affectionate.

“The same to you, my little man,” Richard replied. Well, that took care of the social niceties. “Look, sport – you’re a little young to become a kitchen apprentice. And I’m told that … well, you aren’t quite old enough to start cultivating a sophisticated palate. How about just keeping me company while I prep for tomorrow?”

“Goob-gurgle,” replied Little Joe with perfect amiability.

“Right then,” Richard said, and fetched one of the three high-chairs from the front of the house, setting it up next to the big all-purpose table which served as prep-space. Summoning up all of his nerve and silently sending up a prayer to the heavens that he not inadvertently damage the little sprout in any way, shape or form – since Joe and Jess between them had the capacity and will to inflict horrific damage on anyone who harmed a single one of the barely-visible hairs on the head of their tiny offspring – he lifted Little Joe from the stroller and settled him into the high chair. Regarding his handiwork, Richard thought the infant was sagging a little too far to one side in the chair – which would accommodate a much larger child. A pair of small cushions wedged in on either side of Little Joe did the trick. The two of them regarded each other solemnly across the worktable, and Richard continued his prepping for the following day’s business.

“Cinnamon rolls,” Richard ventured. “It’s cinnamon rolls for tomorrow.”

“Goo-goosh!” commented Little Joe, and Richard was heartened. Didn’t Jerry advise talking to the little sprout? Stimulate his development, or some such child-rearing mumbo-jumbo? “They’re a mainstay at the Café, don’t you know – well, you should. I think your Mum had one every morning. So – here’s the dough for them. Been rising in the warmer for a couple of hours. Now, this is the mixture that goes onto the dough, once I have patted it out just so. Light on the flour, by the way…” he continued in this vein, as if he were explaining and training a new apprentice, as he worked the dough with the expertise of long practice, and the yeasty odor of newly-risen dough filled the workspace. Little Joe was even drooling a bit. “Pity you’re just not old enough for a taste,” Richard commiserated. “Never mind, young-chappie-my-lad; soon enough, soon enough.”

He had run out of prep-work to demonstrate to Little Joe well before five o’clock; for the last hour and a half of his stint, he pulled in a chair from the dining room, opened his trusty edition of Larousse, and read aloud from it to the child. It was impressive, the drama potential which could be invested in the chapter regarding the preparation of various kinds of court-boullion. Little Joe did begin to fuss a bit, when Richard began on the varieties of crab and their preparation for various tasty dishes; oh, bottle-time. Recalling how the bottle must be served up warm, Richard half-filled one of the smallest saucepans in the place with water and set it on the burner – just as a ripe odor began permeating the air. Richard swiftly ran the source to earth – it was strongest in the vicinity of Little Joe, who was now eyeing Richard with a reproachful expression.

“Sorry, Chum,” Richard gasped, lifting the baby out of the chair – and there was a distinct, squishy feel around the child’s bottom. Richard’s left hand felt something soft, malleable … and the stench intensified. “You might have waited!” Richard exclaimed – oh, god, he would have to deal with the unspeakable now – change a diaper. And a more than usually disgusting one, from the feel and the smell. Holding Little Joe out before him, both hands firmly grasping the little wiggler around the chest, Richard made a run for the commodiously-equipped ladies’ lavatory in the Café – that space four times larger and three times better-lit then the male equivalent. One of the additional benefits of the ladies’ (in addition to a fully-lit makeup mirror and a full-sized chaise-lounge) was a fold-out changing table, installed to address the very problem he faced at this moment.

Holding Little Joe one-handed, he put down the table, laid the child upon the surface, and begin striping off those abominably-saturated lower layers. Off came the lower-reaches of the onsie-stretchy-terry thing which was the infant’s garment – one which fastened up the front and down the legs in a series of snaps … oh, god, they were hideously-soaked, about the lower margins, with a vile-smelling materiel which rather looked like yellow-tinted large curds of cottage cheese leaking out from the diaper. Richard stripped garment and diaper from the small, pink, wiggly infant, swabbed Little Joe’s nether regions with dampened paper towels – oh, god, he had neglected to bring in the diaper bag, that fount of fresh, clean coverings!  And no, he could not leave the little wiggler unattended on the fold-out changing shelf in the Ladies’ – by god, he could not! Little Joe might roll over, roll over and off the shelf, falling onto the floor … and Joe and Jess would kill him for injuring their precious first sprout on the family tree. His reputation in Luna City would be utterly destroyed. Richard took up the naked infant, holding him in one arm, praying desperately to all the powers that might or might not be, that there would be no more demonstrations of Little Joe’s digestive system being in perfect yet smelly working order. He went out from the Ladies, grabbed the Brobagnignian-sized diaper bag with the other, and dragged it back to the Ladies’. Fresh diaper, fresh clean onsie – Richard set about reassembling the baby in his garments, realizing that he would have to take out the soiled diaper and paper towels to the outside dumpster, otherwise the disgusting reek rising from the trash receptacle would permeate the whole place. He prayed that the food safety inspector would not pick this particular moment to pay a visit.

Replacing Little Joe in the safe confines of the stroller, Richard rushed back to take out the Ladies’ room trash, holding his breath as much as possible – but there was still a smell lingering in the kitchen – a throat-catching stink of … burnt milk, and scorching plastic! He caught up a towel, cursing under his breath, and pulled the saucepan off the burner, cursing even more.

The saucepan with Little Joe’s bottle in it had boiled dry, melting the bottom of the bottle, and covering the saucepan with a volcanic mixture of seething milk and bubbling plastic. Richard swore again. This was insupportable – and adding to the fraught atmosphere, Little Joe began whimpering.

“A minute, Small Chum!” Richard exclaimed, knowing to his own ears that he sounded desperate. Was there another bottle secreted in the depths of the bounteously bottomless diaper bag – thank god, there was, only this one was yet half-thawed! Resolving to pay better attention this time, Richard filled another saucepan, settled the second bottle into it – and decided that there was no way to comfort the little wriggler, other than to pick him up from the stroller, and hold him while the new bottle warmed. “There, there, Small Chum – not so bad, is it?” Richard settled into the chair from the dining room, hoping that this would suffice to comfort the baby. Which it did, for a few minutes, anyway. Blast! Little Joe scowled, looking more and more like his father in a very bad mood. “Look, Small Chum – maybe some more about crab a la bretonne? All right, then.” Tucking the infant into the crook of his left arm, Richard opened up Larousse with his right, and began to read, giving proper RADA dramatic intonation to the words. Alas – Larousse was not quite the soothing influence it had been all afternoon. Little Joe’s unhappiness became ever more marked. Richard got up several times to check on progress of the bottle-warming. Turn up the flame higher – and speed the warming process! No; the disgusting remains of the previous attempt still sat in the bottom of the main sink. God, that saucepan might very well be ruined. Richard went from sink, to stove, to chair, pleading under his breath for peace and understanding, and read some more Larousse to Little Joe.

Well, at least that seemed to be working. And in the fresh saucepan, the water burbled gently. Richard plucked forth the bottle, shook it, and turned the business end of it towards the inside of his wrist – that wrist attached to the arm cradling Little Joe, who eyed with bottle with gluttonous interest as it came within his near-sighted baby vision. Victory – the milk within was blood-warm, as he squeezed the bottle and splashed a small spurt against his wrist. Richard settled into the dining room chair, remembering to hold the bottle at the proper angle, while Little Joe sucked with energy. How readily those lips resembled a carps’, closed around the bottle nipple to suction out the nourishment within!

So, maybe this baby-sitting job couldn’t be so hard as all that. Warm, fed, change out where they had crapped … rather like a cat, save that Ozzie was rather more self-cleaning. Richard, sitting in the Café kitchen, with the comfortable, warm, and pliable weight in his arm, experienced a fleeting sense of … what was that – contentment? A kind of fulfillment enveloped him … well, really, wasn’t this a kind of human core experience? Caring for the helpless young of the species, nurturing, caring, training them up in the proper paths …”

And then Chris came in through the back door of the Café.

“Jesus, Rich – what is that godawful smell?”

(To be continued — of course!)