23. April 2019 · Comments Off on Part 2 of 1932 – Indians, Cowboys and Outlaws · Categories: Luna City Short Stories

(This is a continuation of an exploration of the past in Luna City: When Miss Letty, Doc Wyler, her brother Douglas, and Artie Vaughn (Joe’s grandfather) were all children, in Depression-era Texas. Just FYI – the Fort is a real place, in a park near my home. A kid-built timber teepee. My brother and I, and our friends had a number of similar forts, growing up in the days when being free-range children was the usual way of things.)

Douglas pushed off, and Letty followed; she liked riding her bicycle, even if it was an old and battered one. With it, she had the freedom of Luna City, the winged freedom of a bird to come and go without trudging in her hand-me-down, holey-toed shoes in the dust. They emerged into Town Square, at the edge of that sculpted grove of ancient trees, hemmed in by the facades of the various buildings which framed the Square with their ornate pediments, their banks of windows, their white-painted columns and discrete statuary. It was a busy place on a Monday, with automobiles and trucks putt-putting a decorous way, amid the horse- and mule-pulled wagons. Even in the midst of hard times, Luna City displayed a mild prosperity. The Luna City Savings and Loan had quite recovered from a midnight raid several years previous by the notorious Newton Gang to rob the antiquated vault. Their fruitless attempt to blow the vault’s door had only succeeded in shattering every window in the place and awaking just about everyone who lived above the shop premises in Town Square. The windows were new – but there were still several divots in the brickwork left from gunfire – not all of it from the Newton gang.

“I’ll be a minute,” Douglas said, as he leaned his own bicycle against the pillar nearest to the door. Letty sat down on the tallest step, next to her own bicycle, and contemplated the view of Town Square from there, and felt the familiar throb of pride and belonging. This was her place, bone of her bone, blood of her blood, as deep in the soil as the roots of the oak trees reached. She was a part of it, it was a part of her, and she loved it fiercely, even the awkward parts, like Artie and his diaper-clad baby brother. There was no other place in the world where she wanted to live.

Along the square, sporadic traffic came and went: Letty’s attention was briefly drawn towards one motor-car. A flashy new sedan, tan-colored with a cloth tonneau top, and not one that she recognized. Although a fair number of strange motor-cars passed by the Tip Top every day – most which came into Luna City itself were driver by owners who were well-known. She watched with interest as it paused along the square, and two men emerged from it, along with an elegantly-attired young woman. The lady was tiny, hardly taller than Letty herself. And she had red hair, combed under a modish hat. Letty noticed them particularly because they looked toward the Savings and Loan building, and it seemed they were conferring together for some moments. And then they got into the motor-car, and it puttered away. Douglas emerged from the Savings and Loan, with a satisfied expression, his hands in his pockets.

“It’s getting hot, Letty – ready for some ice-cream?”

“Sure!” Letty replied – for it was quite warm at near-to-noon, sitting on the steps waiting for Douglas. They walked their bicycles the short distance down the sidewalk to the Mercantile Building – the one which announced its’ name in white glazed bricks along the elaborate façade. Their father rented the street-level shop premise to an ice-cream parlor, and the small apartment above to the family which managed the parlor. There were several small divots in the brickwork surrounding the store-front window of the ice cream parlor – again from an exchange of gunfire; this time between Don Antonio Gonzalez of the Rancho des Robles, and a man with a grudge against his family – but all that had happened before Letty was born, although Papa frequently pointed out the small damage to the front wall of his property and often thanked providence that he hadn’t had to ask Don Antonio to pay for replacing an expensive plate glass window.

Douglas and Letty left their bicycles leaning against the nearest lamppost; the ice-cream parlor was relatively cool, with a ceiling fan lazily stirring the air – and perhaps the merchandise itself lent a suggestion of cold to the place. Douglas chose chocolate, Letty strawberry ice cream, a single scoop packed into a crisp sugar cone, and five cents worth of hard candy chosen from the short display of candies presided over by the beaming shop-keeper. Douglas resolutely paid for it all, although Papa’s tenant insisted at first that they take nothing for the candy.

“It would have saved you a nickel,” Letty pointed out, as they retrieved their bicycles, and Douglas looked stern. “He has a business, Letty – and it would be wrong to take advantage, just because Poppa owns the building? He wouldn’t have given Artie or Stephen a discount … well, maybe he would have given it to Stephen. But it would still be shady. McAllisters do not do shady business, Letty – we do open and above-board.”

“Yes – we do,” Letty agreed, and they pedaled away towards the edge of town, towards where the river scribbled a blue and deep gouge into the landscape to the south of Luna City. Tall trees, thirsty poplar, cypress, sycamore and oak lined the banks, in places with their roots revealed by erosion. Small footpaths and deer-trails threaded stands of native cane and thickets of wild plums and persimmons, blackberry tangles and swags of mustang grapes handing in festoons. It was too late for blackberries, too early for plums, grapes and persimmons. Douglas and Letty skirted the old Sheffield place, and the decaying range of outbuildings, which once had been intended to be resort with a hot-water well rumored to have curative properties.  But the resort never really took off, and the main house had burned and never been rebuilt because of hard times. The deepest pool in the river was at the bend by the Sheffield place – and that was where everyone went for a swim, at the height of summer. Letty knew it well – and also that it was the older kids who favored it most.

The Fort – the hide-out, club-house and refuge of hers and Douglas’s friends was some way past the swimming hole and the Sheffield place; they were all quite certain that none but a select circle knew of it, for they had built it themselves the summer before, and added it over the winter.

Just up-river from the Mills place, the river spread and widened; a shallow flood-plain, floored in gravel and sand, where all the wrack from previous years’ floods accumulated – tree branches, lengths of cane and other trash. An oak with gnarled branches, branches which ran almost perpendicular to the ground held a tenacious position there. And that was where Douglas, Stephen and Letty had collected up lengths of cane, lengths of scrap plank, and straight branches, and brought them to lean from ground to branch, to form a kind of layered driftwood teepee, eight or ten feet in irregular diameter. This was “The Fort” – not entirely weatherproof, but sheltered against the wind and weather, and furnished with some small comforts. The most notable of those comforts included a moldering buffalo robe which cushioned the larger part of the space within, and an ancient camp stove – a metal tray on legs, in which they could kindle a small fire, and a couple of tin pots, plates and mugs – most of which were the measuring cups given out by the flour-milling companies.

As Douglas and Letty walked their bikes around the last bend in the river, towards the clump of trees that sheltered the Fort, they saw that Stephen Wyler was already there. A cow-pony from the Wyler ranch stable was browsing morosely on the sparse tufts of grass which had found purchase on the sandy soil of the river bottom, tied loosely by the reins to another tree limb. Stephen himself sat on the edge of the riverbank, his legs dangling over the edge, with his own .22 at his side.

“You’re just in time, Captain!” he commented, as he slid down in a rush of dust and pebbles. “We got word from HQ – we’re to attack the German trench in Sector 22 in an hour.”

“I thought it was going to be the Comanche winter camp today,” Letty was disappointed. She much preferred stalking the Comanches, to storming the German’s trench.

“That’s no fun,” Stephen answered.

“Maybe we be G-men hunting for robbers,” Douglas suggested. “You know, like the Newton brothers, or the Barker gang… Public enemy number one!”

Letty considered this – yes, not as boring as storming a German trench and pretending to fight imaginary soldiers. “There were some strangers in the Square today, while you were inside the Savings & Loan. They kept looking up at the building and talking – two young men in flashy clothes and a lady with red hair.”

“Gangsters and their moll, for sure,” Douglas nodded. “What did they do then, Letty?”

“They talked for a bit, and then they got into the car and drove away. It looked as if they were studying the building, and seeing how many people were around.”

“What kind of car?” Stephen looked as if he had already come around to considering hunting for gangsters. “A tan-colored touring car with a cloth top – it had the silver greyhound on the front. It looked pretty new.”

“A Lincoln,” Douglas took especial note of cars – their makers and their styles, through helping at the Tip-Top. “They must have been passing through; no one around Luna City drives a tan-colored Lincoln like that. We should wait for Artie. He knows everything there is to know about gangsters.”

“Oh, him!” Stephen looked deflated. “Is he coming, too?”

“Yeah,” Douglas answered, with a sigh. “We gave him the password for today and all.”

“Rats,” Stephen kicked the toe of his boot at the sandy ground. “He’s a pain, always dragging his little brother along…”

“We ought to wait a bit for him anyway,” Douglas insisted. “He’ll know enough to make it all interesting. And anyway – I bought some candy at the ice-cream parlor. I made two dollars in tips this week, and Mama said that I might treat Letty and my friends with a bit of it.”

“Well, that’s all right, then,” Stephen yielded with little grace. “So – where do we go, hunting for gangsters and robbers?”

“The Mills place would be a good start,” Douglas mused, as he followed Stephen into the Fort, bowing half-way to the ground in order to make it through the low doorway. Inside was still cool from the shade, and faintly musty-smelling from the old buffalo robe. “I heard tell that Old Man Mills was a gangster himself, in the old days. The Bent Cactus gang, the Dalton gang and all … and everyone says that that Old Man Mills brought home the loot from all their robberies and hid it somewhere.”

“Old Man Mills has been a likker bootlegger from a long time back, too,” Stephen agreed. In the shade of the Fort, his eyes were as big and dark as those blackberries which grew on the field-side hedges and wastelands. “And he got some big ol’ pet alligators in a pond out at his place. They say that he threw the dead bodies of his gang that he double-crossed to the alligators to eat. That way there’d be no evidence.” Now Douglas shook his head.

“He doesn’t neither, Stephen – his alligators aren’t big enough.”

“Bet you they are,” Stephen insisted. “We ought to just scout around and take a look!”

 

Letty shivered, as if a cold draft had blown suddenly down her neck. Old Man Mills was a bogy-man to them: an old, cranky and unkept man with an evil reputation. He didn’t much dare show his face in town any more, so Letty had only seen him above half a dozen times. He had a wife, though – although Mama had a very sour expression on her face, whenever she might encounter Mrs. Mills about town. Mrs. Mills was a smooth-faced, black-haired woman, considerably younger than Old Man Mills. She spoke Spanish but was as pale-complected as any Anglo in Luna City.

“That woman is no better than she ought to be!” Letty had heard Mama fume to Poppa, once, when Mama thought that Letty and Douglas were out of hearing, after encountering Mrs. Mills in the doorway to Abernathy Hardware. It sounded like Mrs. Mills was indeed a gangster moll, Letty thought, upon reconsideration. Just like the pretty red-headed lady in the tan-colored Lincoln. Her ruminations on this – and Douglas and Stephen’s discussion of how they should go about surreptitiously visiting the Mills place were interrupted by a shout from outside.

“Hey – anybody there!”

(So this is a snippet of the developing Luna City #8 – a long look back into the past, when Doc Wyler, Miss Letty and her brother, as well as the Vaughn boys were children, and more or less friends. Engaged in purely kid-interests, in Depression-era Texas, which included kid-pursuits such as all day out of the house, war-games and makeshift forts, and perhaps more… this was the early 1930ies, of course.)

“Where are you going today, Letty?” Mama asked, on one Monday mid-morning after breakfast. It was the second week of the summer vacation. “You and Douglas?” Sunlight poured golden into the covered back porch of the McAllister house. The bees danced among the hollyhocks and delphiniums in the flower borders which curved around the grand old stone house. Around the side, beyond the carefully tended sweep of lawn, the dust settled silently back in the wake of a Ford truck, which had rattled past the McAllister house, heavily laden with a load of vegetables for a market in San Antonio.

“Out to play,” Letty answered. “At our fort, with Stephen.”

“Just be back by suppertime,” Mama replied, looking up from sorting the household laundry from several baskets.  Monday was washing-day; not such a chore as it had been once, since the McAllister’s boasted a patent washing machine, complete with a mechanical wringer which Letty was absolutely forbidden to touch because it was dangerous. It could mash your fingers to splinters in moments. “Did you finish your chores, then?”

“Yes, Mama,” Letty had. She was conscientious about chores, even at the age of eight. Eggs gathered from the flock of hens kept in back, scraps and cracked corn put out for them and the garden weeded. In the house, her bed was made tidily, the breakfast dishes cleared from the table. Douglas – her eleven-year-old brother – Douglas had finished his own daily chore, of splitting wood for the kitchen stove and hauling water from the well to water the garden. Douglas was very strong for his age – almost twelve and handled a small splitting maul and wedges with skill, slivering quarters of wood into smaller portions for the stove. “Can we make sandwiches to take for our lunch?”

“A day of it?” Mama smiled. “Of course – there’s some ham in the icebox, but don’t take it all. Your father will want his lunch as well. And there is some lemon cake from Sunday supper; you may have two small slices of that – oh, take a piece for Stephen as well. Just leave enough for your father.”

“Yes, Mama!” Letty wrapped her arms around her mothers’ comfortable middle for an exuberant and brief embrace. She ran up to her room on the second floor of the old stone McAllister house to change into her play clothes – a worn middy-blouse and a pair of her brothers’ outgrown knee-britches, her feet thrust into canvas tennis shoes – also outgrown by Douglas and boasting holes by Letty’s littlest toes. She didn’t mind that – after all, when they played around the fort, she would kick off the shoes and go barefoot. It was summer, after all. Summer was for bare feet, although Mama would sigh and say that being barefoot all summer was a sign of being poor and trashy. McAllisters were proper. They always had shoes, even if times were hard in Luna City. She and Douglas would have new shoes when school started, in August. For now, they went barefoot. When Letty absolutely had to wear shoes in summer, she wore her brothers’ old pair or crammed her feet into the Sunday shoes that she had new for Easter … and now which pinched dreadfully, but would have to last until Spring, when Mama and Papa bought them all new Sunday best and good shoes.

That done, she raced downstairs again, and into the kitchen. Outside on the back porch, she heard the regular thump-thump-thump of the mechanical washing machine. Letty know that having electricity in the McAllister house, and most of the better homes in Luna City was a sign of advance and prosperity. In the old days, doing laundry by hand took all the day and all the time and labor on the part of the women in the household … that is, if they did not sent it out, and who knows where it really went and what was done to it?

Letty quickly assembled sandwiches; she was deft with slicing bread and carving off thin slivers of ham in order to leave enough for Papa. Mama let her handle the biggest kitchen knife, at least. She wrapped the sandwiches in brown paper and cut three portions of cake – alike wrapping that in paper – just as her brother Douglas thundered down the staircase and erupted into the kitchen like a small and erratic storm. He had his .22 rifle slung, soldier-like over his shoulder, and a metal water canteen on a sling over his other. The canteen was a metal Army-surplus one; practically Douglas’ proudest possession.

“Ready, Letty?” he demanded, bouncing from one foot to another. “We gotta go to town first.”

“What for?” Letty wrapped the sandwiches and cake in a large calico handkerchief and tied the opposite corners in knots.

Douglas puffed out his chest with pride. “I eared two dollars in tips at the Tip-Top last week – helping people clean their windows and top up their radiators. I’m keeping out fifteen cents for ice cream … an’ some candy, but the rest I’m gonna put in my savings account.”

“A whole two dollars – and people just gave it to you, like that?”

“’cause I was helpful, Letty,” Douglas explained.

“I wish people would give me money for being helpful,” Letty ventured, somewhat wistfully. Their father had taken them into the Luna City Savings and Loan the previous year, and ceremoniously presented them to the Chief Teller, saying that they were old enough to open bank accounts of their own. To save for their education, their father said, although Douglas had confessed that he would rather save up for a fancy wind-up phonograph. Much, much later, Letty would realize that their father had – most sensibly – chosen to demonstrate his own faith in the solidity of the Luna City Savings and Loan in this fashion. After all, the McAllisters were one Luna City’s leading families; Grandfather Arthur Wells McAllister was one of the founders.

“You have your Christmas and birthday present money,” Douglas consoled her. “When you are ten, maybe you can run errands and help at the Tip-Top.”

This was true – but Letty still wished that she had as much as fifteen cents to spend on ice cream and penny-candy. But she and Douglas were fortunate in having bicycles of their own. Times might be hard for many people, even in Luna City – and Letty knew very well that the McAllisters were fortunate indeed, even if her bicycle was an old boys’ bicycle and slightly rusted along the frame. She followed her brother, crossing the dusty main road which ran between San Antonio – the big city, far to the north, and Aransas Pass, down on the Gulf Coast, baking in the mid-morning sun. Beyond the shabby weathered Tip-Top Ice House with the range of gasoline pumps out in front, the road into Luna City wandered past a meadows and stands of trees, eventually past houses with smaller and smaller gardens as they approached Town Square, marked at one end with the gleaming façade of the grand Cattleman Hotel, and the white columns and pediment of the Luna City Public School at the other. This was a familiar passage for Letty: during the school term, she and Douglas went this way twice daily and back – to school, home for lunch, back to school and finally home again.

Town Square basked in the mid-summer sunshine, although the massive stands of oak trees cast pools of cool shade under their branches. Some of the oaks were so large that three children holding hands could not reach all the way around them. By the old Fire Station, she and Douglas drew abreast of a friend – or perhaps more accurately, a sort of friend. One who was determined on his part to be their friend, or at least be in association with them.

“’Lo, Artie,” Douglas rested his feet on the ground, and Letty followed suit. Artie Vaughn was yet a year and a half younger than Letty; a skinny boy with a nose way too big for his narrow face and dark hair which grew every which way, like an untidy haystack. He was tall for his age. “Got stuck with minding the baby again?”

Artie – barefoot under the faded denim overalls which were his only garment – nodded in agreement. He had his toddler brother Harry in a battered wooden wagon. Harry was three, but likewise big for his age. He had the same beak of a nose and unkempt black hair; like his brother, shorn by an inexpert hand armed with a bowl and a pair of shears. Artie and Harry’s father was one of Luna City’s small force of police officers. This was out of desperate necessity, as his small carpentry business in Karnesville had gone bust for lack of paying customers. The fifteen dollars a month paid by the city was what kept the Vaughn family from abject poverty – that and the kindness of neighbors and the extensive vegetable garden in back of the Vaughn’s tidy frame bungalow on Oak Street.

“Until Mama gets done with the shopping. Harry is too big an’ ornery to take with her. You going out to the Fort with Stephen?” Artie’s countenance reflected eagerness and a pathetic longing to be included in the afternoon. Letty sighed. Now they would have to invite him. Artie was like a burr that couldn’t be shaken off.

“Yeah,” Douglas replied. “Look – if you wanna come out to the Fort, you gotta know the password. For today, the challenge is ‘Montcalm’ and the password is ‘Wolfe.’ Otherwise you’re an enemy spy and we won’t let you in.”

“’Montcalm’ and ‘Wolfe’!” Artie exclaimed, beaming with happiness. “It’s the bees’ knees, Douglas! I won’t forget!”

“See you,” Douglas didn’t sound enthused, to any degree. Artie was a trial to Douglas, Stephen and Letty, only slightly alleviated by his free access to father’s collection of tattered True Detective Magazines (Vaughn, Senior purchased them for the professional articles, so he claimed), and Artie’s own imagination, which tended in the direction of flamboyantly creative. Artie was burdened by the damp and dampening presence of his baby brother, for he was frequently tasked with looking after the younger Vaughn. (“It’s not really fair,” Douglas confessed to his sister. “Artie’s a good egg – but really … having to play with a kid who isn’t even out of diapers? It’s just not fair, Letty! He’s not our baby brother!”  “At least we can pretend that he is a Comanche sentry,” Letty consoled her brother. “Or set him down and say that he is first base.”)

02. April 2019 · Comments Off on Custody Dispute – Part the 2nd · Categories: Luna City Short Stories

(Wherein the previous owner of Ozzie, AKA Captain Kitten the Kitchen Kat – appear and emphatically demand his return.)

“What happened then?”  Katie demanded, not half an hour later – her fine beryl-colored eyes gleaming with righteous indignation and concern. “And who are these people, anyway? You found Ozzie – that night that you fixed that splendid haute-cuisine supper for me. He was hanging out in the hedge between the Café and the Stein’s place – I remember that very clearly, in spite of having too darned many glasses of your landlords’ wine that evening.”

She and Richard sat out in the brief covered patio space before the Airstream, relishing the calm afternoon, the sun slowly sliding down in the western sky, a bottle of Sefton Grant’s priceless white mustang grape wine and two glasses between them. Ozzie was behaving with absolutely kittenish abandon, settled onto Kate’s lap, purring with energy and nudging her hand when she stopped stroking his ears and chin.

Richard sighed, heavily. In his mind, his call on Kate’s affections and those erratic feline attentions of Ozzie were inextricably linked. Gained one, gained the other. Loose one … perhaps loose the other, and perhaps his own grip on a contented life, here serving out caviar cuisine on a canned tuna-fish budget in Luna City. During the ride home from the Tip Top his resolve to keep Ozzie hardened into adamantine stone. Not having Ozzie would mean not having anything meaningful at all.

“Chris took notice of the fuss – not that he could avoid it, since everyone was pretty overwrought – and he called Joe Vaughn.”

“Oh, good!” Kate’s pleasant round countenance brightened. “And Joe told them where they could take their custodial demand and shove it sideways? Ozzie is yours – you found him, took care of him, fed him – made him Captain Kitten!? Everybody in Luna City knows that he’s been yours, no matter where he came from.”

“Well, Joe calmed down the Palmers … that’s Marta and Fred. They live in New Braunfels – is that where that enormous tourist plaza is, where we all met on the way to Marble Falls to cheer on Chris when he competed in that marathon run? Yes, thought so. I couldn’t forget a place like that…Amazing the effect that a uniform has on the ordinary middle-class tax-payers. Especially when it’s Joe wearing it. His sheer forceful presence ensured a compromise, of sorts.”

“Everything is bigger in Texas,” Kate agreed, her expression rather smug. “And yes – that’s the place. The most palatial and cleanest bathrooms around. Did Joe convince them that Ozzie is yours? Honestly, Joe in official mode is perfectly terrifying.”

“No – not entirely,” Richard sighed again. “The Palmers insisted that Ozzie had been chipped … that is, some little identifying device inserted into him, registering original ownership. Apparently, any practicing veterinarian possesses a device which can read those chips. Doc Wyler may be the only one in this county who does not utilize such…”

“Well, he’s old school,” Kate consoled him. “So old-school, I don’t think this present century has registered with him at all. Anyway – he doesn’t do small animal practice, save as a favor for friends. What compromise did Joe make them agree to?”

“That we should present Ozzie tomorrow at 10 AM tomorrow at a veterinary clinic in Karnesville – myself with Ozzie, and the Palmers; there to wait upon the decision of the thingy-chip-reading device. I have the address – and the Palmers secured an appointment and ascertained their willingness to perform such a process. They said they would stay tonight at the Cattleman and meet me in the morning in Karnesville. Kate my darling, I greatly fear that I shall lose Ozymandias.” Richard, under the influence of two or three glasses of Sefton Grant’s peerless vintage, was moved to unburden himself of his deepest fears. “I don’t want that to happen, my dearest Kate, Kate of Kate Hall. Ozzie is more than a pet … I see him as my other self, you know. My familiar, the being in which a good part of my selfish, unworthy soul resides.”

“You are rather cat-like,” Kate agreed. Richard was uncomfortably reminded that his dear keen-eyed Kate had his number down to the thousandth decimal place. “Probably why Ozzie also adores you. A symbiont soul.” She didn’t enlarge on this insight any farther, for which Richard was grateful.

“I don’t want to give him up,” Richard admitted. “But … I might have to. In all honestly, of the chip reveals all…”

“I know,” Kate reached out, from the folding patio chair, to clasp Richard’s hand. “Let’s napalm that bridge when we come to it, OK? Tonight – he is still yours. D’you need a ride to the veterinary clinic tomorrow? I’ll take you, of course. I’ll crash tonight on Araceli’s fold-out sofa and come to get you at … 9:15. That will give us enough time to get to Karnesville…”

“Perfect,” Richard returned the affectionate clasp. He wished that it could be something more … energetic. But this was Kate. Not a fence to go rushing towards. All would happen in good time. “It was tragic, though. Hearing about it from the Palmers. Joe verified, of course. She – their daughter – was a nurse. A very good and dedicated one, from all accounts. Loved by everyone, including our dumb chums, and all her patients and co-workers. Had one of those organ-donor agreements in place. Eyes, heart, lung and kidneys – all went to deserving recipients when they pulled the plug.”

“A good life, well-lived,” Kate nodded. “But that’s another matter entirely. “Her cat has been well-content living with you for … two years?” She sent him one of those beryl-green assessing looks. “Another transplant … just of the other sort. He’s as been as good for you, as if he was a heart or a kidney…”

“I know,” Richard admitted, although most of this was the mustang grape elixir speaking. Ordinarily, he shied from that embarrassing self-knowledge, much less voicing it. “Good of you to go with me tomorrow, Kate. If worst comes to worst, we might have to give up the Captain Kitten blog…”

“Not necessarily,” Kate replied. “I have enough cute pictures of Ozzie in my archives to last into the middle of this century.”

“Top up?” Richard extended the jug towards Kate, and when she shook her head, refilled his own glass and confessed. “I’m inordinately fond of the little blighter. He keeps my feet warm on cold nights. Glad to see me when I finish work for the day – and is not so stupidly needy as a dog. I’ll be deeply depressed if that chip device proves that he is really theirs.”

“We’ll sort that out in the morning,” Kate replied. During this conversation, Ozzie had curled into a tight ball, wedging his head into the crook of Kate’s left elbow. “Let’s not dwell on that any more – worrying about it won’t change anything, and all that it will do will be to spoil our lovely supper. What are you cooking for me tonight? It smells wonderful…”

“Chicken Marengo,” Richard answered. “That is actually the required veal demi-glace reduction that you detect, my dear Kate. I will be preparing it in the original version – chicken breasts with tomatoes, garlic and fresh mushrooms, garnished with fresh prawns, fried eggs and divers fresh herbs. It is legend that Napoleon’s personal chef concocted it after a successful battle and a quick whip-round of those delicacies fit for an emperor-general which were available in the near vicinity.”

“Sounds delish!” Kate exclaimed, with a warm smile. “Never stop cooking for me, Richard.”

“Never,” Richard assured her.

He did think, very briefly – that if he lost custody of Ozzie, some of the joy of cooking for Kate and Ozzie would leak out of his life. But Kate had requested that they not speak of that matter any further – and so he resolutely put it out of his mind, lest contemplating that stark loss further spoil the enchantment of an evening of Kate and fine cuisine.