25. March 2023 · Comments Off on From the Book in Progress – That Fateful Lightning · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book

(From the work in progress, the Civil War novel that has been languishing in my to-do pile for several years… but not to worry, The Golden Road, the Gold Rush adventure sat there half finished for almost seven years because I kept being dist — oh, a squirrel! In this excerpt, Miss Minnie Vining has become a staunch abolitionist, traveling the north-east and campaigning for the abolition of slavery. While on a winter visit to upstate New York, she receives a telegram urging her return to Boston…)

The carriage sent by the generous Mr. Turner arrived before sunrise; the sky in the east holding the faint flush the color of mother-of-pearl, while the stars themselves remained faint pinpricks of light in the west. It was icy cold, a brisk wind from off the lakeshore cutting through Minnie’s heaviest mantle, woolen traveling dress and several flannel petticoats. It was a positive relief to reach the shelter of the State Street Station, the depot for the New York Central Railroad; a stately and classically elegant building, a noble façade pierced by twin arches. There was a good fire already blazing in the iron stove which heated the passenger waiting room; which at this early hour was blessedly empty. The only other occupant was a well-set gentleman in Army blue. Minnie barely spared a glance in his direction, noting with a small pang at her heart that he rather resembled Pres Devereaux. Something about the set of his shoulders, and dark hair somewhat threaded with grey … and when he raised his eyes from the newspaper that he seemed to be reading with much attention, she noted that they were the same fierce pale blue.

“Miss Minnie Vining!” he exclaimed, setting aside the newspaper and rising from the comfortless wooden bench upon which he sat. “If I might presume upon old friendship! It’s been a good few years, but … we met in Richmond, at the house of your Cousin Edmonds… Levi Ennis, Major, US Army …” he added, with a suddenly diffident manner, and Minnie’s heart turned entirely over in her chest, remembering that gilded summer at Susan’s palatial home there; the comforts provided by attentive servants, the lavish, flower-filled garden, the parties, gatherings and picnics, all embedded in her memory like the fragile wings of an insect, preserved in amber.

The place where she had come face to face with the brutality of the slavery system. And Levi Ennis and his cousin, Pres Devereaux had been the means of that fateful meeting. It came to Minnie that she owed him courtesy in that respect.

“Major Ennis! You are promoted! So splendid – it has been my understanding that promotions come so terribly slow in peacetime! Did our affray in Mexico do you that good? They do say that it is an ill wind that blows no one any good; I expect that it is the same with wars. We are now laden with slave states, so I am cheered that at least some small gain has been made from that abomination of a war!”

At her side, Minnie was aware of Lolly briefly closing her eyes and taking in a small breath. But Lolly had become accustomed to Minnie’s outspoken ways, after all this time.

“As war is my profession, I expect so,” Levi Ennis smiled, with a reckless expression which so recalled the countenance of Pres Devereaux to her. “A bloody encounter does have a brutal way of clearing out the deadwood. Just so does a wildfire, out on the western plains; clear out the useless and overgrown, make way for the fit and able.”

“I am most astonished at finding you here in Rochester,” Minnie ventured, after belatedly introducing Lolly Bard, “And then I remembered that Mrs. Ennis is from this town – I pray that she and the children are all well; I have such pleasant memories of watching them at play in Mrs. Edmonds’ Garden.”

“Indeed,” Levi Ennis’s expression warmed at the mention of his family. “We were visiting my wife’s parents. My Dearest thrives on motherhood – we have two more children, both girls, since that happy visit to Richmond. My boys are now grown so tall, I am certain you would not recognize them, Miss Vining. My oldest son is determined to follow in my footsteps and apply for a position at West Point.”

“It has been some ten or eleven years,” Minnie agreed, with a deep sigh. “I wouldn’t expect to recognize them, since so much has changed, since they were small children, frolicking in my cousin’s garden! I should tell you, Major Ennis – that we have become estranged from our Richmond cousins over the matter of the peculiar institution. My cousin, Mrs. Edmonds took it so personally, when I first began giving public lectures against the practice; it grieved me very much, but she was adamant and unforgiving. And when Cousin Peter – you recollect, the veteran of Washington’s Continentals – he went to his heavenly reward a year or two later, there seemed to be no basis for a reconciliation. Now, I do recall that your cousin, Mr. Devereaux was courting Charlotte Edmonds, and that was considered an excellent match; can you tell me – did they marry after all?”

“They did,” Major Ennis nodded, “It was quite a notable social event in Richmond; I couldn’t attend, as I was off to fight in Mexico about that time, but my brother James wrote to me with a full accounting. You will recollect that it was my younger brother who married the eldest Miss Edmonds, in that summer when you visited Richmond? I understand that Pres and his young missus have several children now, and Pres has taken over management of the family acres.”

“I was teaching Charlotte to play chess,” Minnie allowed, stifling the brief pang of regret that she felt, upon mention of Mr. Devereaux. The carved Chinese ivory chess set held a place of honor in the study in the house in Boston, which was still her own, no matter how far she ventured from it. “Since your cousin so relished the game. I thought it a fine thing that a married couple should have a common intellectual interest, since I knew that both your cousin and I derived so much pleasure from the game of kings.” Her voice trailed off, as she recollected Pres Devereaux’s sudden declaration of love for her. “I am glad to hear that they have been blessed with children. I often watched your cousin playing with your little boys in the garden. So happy were they, and he also. I am glad to hear that domesticity agrees with him.”

She detected a sudden flash of sympathy on Major Ennis’ weathered countenance and wondered if he were about to speak it aloud; and too, if Pres Devereaux might have confessed to his cousin anything of that bolt-out-of-the-blue love for her spinster self.

“And that your great devotion to the cause of abolition has been rewarded as well,” he said. “My Dearest’s friends in Rochester were agog to hear that we had met you socially – the indominable and celebrated Miss Minerva Vining! But what of your sister, Mrs. Annabelle?” He hesitated, obviously anticipating bad news from the somber expression on Lolly Bard’s face.

“We received news last night that she has taken very ill, and so we are returning to Boston in haste, to be at her bedside whilst she recovers,” Minnie explained. “We hope that her condition will not worsen… Oh, why did we travel all this way – we did not expect this sad news!” She was abruptly overcome with apprehension, desolate with the fear that Annabelle would already be gone from this earthly existence before she and Lolly returned to Boston! Oh, why had she placed her devotion to the Cause over care for kin? How had she let her undying determination to see the institution of slavery made unlawful override her concern for those she held most dear?

“That is … most disheartening intelligence,” Major Ennis’ expression reflected nothing but the most profound sympathy. “Allow me to extend my sympathies, Miss Vining. Our duties and obligations … even those taken on without being oath-bound … take us far. Sometimes too far on a campaign to be with those whom we love in a time of crisis. Because of our duty to those with whom we serve, and the orders of those whom we serve.”

“I serve no one but the Almighty,” Minnie replied, warmed by Major Ennis’ profound sympathy and understanding. “But I see that you understand, and your sentiments are most comforting. Fortunate is our encounter, on this dreary morning. We are bound for Albany, and then … if Mrs. Bard has secured our connections … we may be in Boston before many days have passed. Where are you bound on this morning?”

“To Baltimore, and then to Washington,” Major Ennis answered with a sigh. “On official duties…” Outside of the waiting room, the distant rumble of iron wheels on tracks echoed through the depot. Lolly cocked her head to one side, listening carefully.

“Minnie, dear – I think that will be our train arriving. On time – such an achievement! Regularity in arrival and departure is the standard which Mr. Bard demanded. The whole enterprise depended upon timing, you know – not just to serve the passengers, you see – but that the train should be the single one advancing upon a single track, without meeting another. At dreadful speed, you see … a head-on collision between locomotives! That would be frightful, indeed. And would not do any good for the fortunes of the line…” Lolly blinked, as if she had just made the deepest insight, instead of the most banal. Minnie sighed again, and rose from her seat, giving her gloved hand to Major Ennis in farewell.

“We have tickets for the first train east in the morning,” she said. “And I trust in Mrs. Bard’s experience in judging these things – that this be our train. I am so happy for this chance meeting, Major Ennis – and I hope that we shall soon have another such happy encounter.”

“You might count on that!” Major Ennis rose likewise and bowed over her hand.


The arriving train was, indeed – the one for Albany and points east. Minnie and Lolly Bard arrived in Boston three days later, to see the black crepe hung on the Brewer house, shredded by winter winds, for Annabelle’s funeral was already done. Minnie sat in the Brewer carriage and wept into her hands. Too late, too late! Her sister of the heart was gone! She took some strength from Major Ennis’ words – about duty, campaigns, and oaths. He would know about such things, being a soldier.

Minnie encountered him again; when the war was already begun, another ten years later. By then, the cause had been baptized in blood, and the two of them were alike sworn to serve.

Richard is taking his parents around Town Square on the 4th of July, introducing them to all of his friends and associates. With luck, Luna City 11 will be available in another couple of months. Cross my heart …)

“Everything happens in the park, or around the edges of Town Square,” he explained, as the ever-popular miniature train ride trundled slowly past – a train of recycled oil-drums set on their side on wheels to make the carriages, and an engine also cobbled out of oil drums and powered by a motor which once had powered a ride-along mower. Clem Bodie of the Bodie Feed Mill had constructed the miniature train some fifteen years ago, for fun and to exercise his welding talents – and also to dispose of a number of items of metal scrap and put them to good civic use. All the streets which fed into Town Square had been blocked to vehicle traffic, for the convenience of the little train, the parade at noon, and for the drifting of pedestrians back and forth, like the gentle washing of a wind-blown tide at a mountain lake shore.

“The heart of the community,” Dottie Astor Hall remarked, with unexpected sagacity. “I do like this little town, Richard … oh, look at the little dogs! How charming, and how clever! Do you know their owner?”

“I do, as a matter of fact,” Richard confessed, as they crossed the street in front of the Café, where the Hanging Oak (less the one decaying branch from which Charley Mills had nearly been lynched in 1926) brooded over the sidewalk. “Anita Blake-Silva, with Oscar and Felix – the dachshunds,” he added, as the dogs greeted him with a chorus of barking. “Good morning, Judge – I see that you have entered the dogs in the patriotic costume contest.”

“I have, if they can keep from ruining their wigs before judging time,” Judge Anita Blake-Silva replied, and Richard performed introductions.

“My parents, Alfred and Dorothy Astor-Hall – this is Anita Blake-Silva, one of the county magistrates, and Oscar and Felix.”

“How very pleasant to make your acquaintance!” Dottie exclaimed, as the one of the dachshunds laid his nose on her right shoe and looked up adoringly. “And the costumes are so very clever – did you make them yourself?”

“I did,” Anita Blake-Silva confessed. “With the help of a niece who is a costume designer, and she is very fond of the boys…”

“Who obviously don’t mind cross-dressing,” Richard commented; as one dachshund was dressed in a blue coat with buff facings over a buff weskit and lace cravat, a tricorn hat (over a white curled wig) and a small sword-belt, and the other gazing up at his mother so worshipfully was gotten up in an elaborate dress with panniers, a mobcap, and a white wig.

“Well, you see,” confessed Judge Anita-Blake Silva, “They are representing General and Mrs. Washington. Total hams, both of them, and they don’t really mind at all, as long as everyone pays attention to them.”

“Good thing,” Alfred commented, as soon as they had moved on, past the Judge and her excitable duo. “If I were a dog, dressed up in a ridiculous costume, I’d want to bite the next person who held down a hand.”

“Well, come along, Father,” Richard urged him, “You and Mum wanted to meet everyone … now, this is Pryor’s Meats BBQ; their food truck, which they run for special events. They open the BBQ on weekends – honestly, the place has all the ambiance of an industrial warehouse, but no one really cares, and the meat processing during the week. They do the most amazing sausages and supply the Café as well as Mills Farm … to include the Crystal Room. I have always preferred to purchase locally sourced goods, and the Pryors can’t get much more local than this. Mrs. Pryor … she who looks most amazingly like the late Princess Di … is also the granddaughter and heir of Doc Wyler … whom, I should have noted before this, owns the largest ranch in Karnes County – and also just about anything else of value that isn’t already nailed down and owned by the Bodies of the Feed Mill, Don Jaimie of the original Spanish holding, and Mills Farm itself. If you have a hankering … sorry, I have been immersed in the local vernacular … if you have an urge to sample original Texas BBQ, you should taste it from here, before they run out.”

(Richard, having welcomed his parents to town in time to celebrate the 4th of July, is escorting them around Town Square, introducing them to his vast assortment of local friends. Which includes most of the characters who have featured in the previous volumes.)

The door to the Stein’s Wild West Emporium chimed a musical herald to Alfred’s return, significantly with a wrapped package under his arm, and the three of them moved on, in the direction of the Café, with all the outside tables filled with customers.

Richard said, in the manner of a tour guide, as he waved in the general direction of Araceli and her ever-present coffee carafe. “Now, here is another member of the keen reenactor fraternity…”

“I never would have guessed,” Alf Astor-Hall murmured, for Clovis Walcott was arrayed in all the splendor of 1830s martial glory; a high-collared blue jacket adorned with gold frogs, much braid, and epaulettes, over buff-colored trousers and knee-high cavalry boots. This tasteful ensemble was accessorized with a brace of (replica, or perhaps, knowing Clovis Walcott’s pocketbook and quest for authenticity, they were authentic antique) pistols tucked into a brilliant red silk sash, and a saber belt – with scabbarded saber – buckled over the sash which clanked resoundingly with every stride, which Richard knew well from previous encounters with Clovis in his 19th century persona.

“Colonel Walcott,” Richard replied, as they approached the range of tables and chairs set under an awning under a wide awning over the front of Luna Café and Coffee; an area comfortable only when the temperatures were mild, which in July meant for an hour or so around sunrise before a rising sun baked everything in Texas to a toasty brown. “Who is really a colonel – reserve and mostly retired from active service. He designs and builds things of extraordinary complexity; a refreshing change from his previous career of blowing them up. In is misspent youth, he played in a garage band, and he owns the ugliest MacMansion anywhere in the vicinity. His youngest son – God knows how the kid came to this – is currently working as sous-chef in the Café. I can only suppose that I taught the boy correctly, and that the good colonel doesn’t bear an abiding grudge over that development, proof positive of his generosity and good public spirit. Colonel Walcott is another of Luna City’s leading citizens, all of this, despite the temper of his missus, the fire cat Mrs. Sook Walcott, the tiger mother from hell … good morning, Colonel.”

“Good morning, Richard!” Colonel Walcott looked up from his fruit salad and croissant breakfast. “Ready for the Glorious Fourth – our celebration of the independence which is the rightful inheritance of every man and woman in this blessed land?”

“Yeah, verily and forsooth,” Richard replied, “May I present Colonel Clovis Walcott of the … something-or-othereth. A gentleman of the first water, My parents, Albert and Dorothy Astor Hall.”

Clovis Walcott chuckled. “The tongue and vocabulary of the old century does have that hold on you, doesn’t it?” He stood up and bowed in an exaggeratedly courtly manner over Dottie’s hand, raising it to his lips and kissing it in a way that made Richard’s mother almost simper. “This most handsome lady – hardly to be of a vintage to be your mother, Chef Richard? And the most gallant gentleman – I am most honored in making his acquaintance at long last!”

“How d’ye do,” Albert replied, with a stiff and most formal nod, in the best olde stiff-upper-lip manner. “Albert Astor-Hall, at your service, my good sir.”

“Charmed!” Clovis Walcott responded. “Charmed to make your acquaintance! Are you planning to take up residence in our Texas? I assure you, there are many opportunities for an entrepreneurious gentlemen such as yourself. I can introduce you to my good friend, Colonel Bowie, if you are so inclined as to take up a grant in our fair country.”

“I regret that I am already committed to a substantial property in another land, my good sir,” Albert replied, while Richard goggled at how readily his father fell into this kind of make-believe. He had never suspected his father of entertaining such theatrical leanings, let alone a facility for improvisation.

“Our loss, indeed, good sir,” Colonel Walcott rendered another formal bow, and went clanking off across the street to join his fellows at the reenactor camp, who had been gesturing him from across the pavement for him to get a move on and lend his theatricality to the festivities.

“Oooh, I do like him!” Dorothy sighed and fanned herself theatrically with her hand. “Such a gent!”

“He is, that,” Richard agreed glumly, and encouraged his parental units to move on. Miss Letty, Doc Wyler and Harry Vaughn sat at another table. Richard sighed, upon seeing that trio, for the two gentlemen were looking daggers at each other, while Miss Letty sat, prim and elegant in her shirtwaist dress, wide-brimmed summer hat, matching gloves and a handbag which matched the colors of the modestly flowered summer hat. (Which also matched her dress. Miss Letty had always been detail-oriented.) “Mum – these are some of the people I’ve told you about before: Doctor Stephen Wyler and Miss Letty McAllister; they jointly own the Café and hired me to run the kitchen when I first came here. The two of them are what passes for nobility around here – and what they don’t know about Luna City could be put into a thimble.”

“Know where all the bodies are buried, then?” Alfred grunted.

“Likely, they assisted in putting them there,” Richard acknowledged. “The scowling gentleman with the impressive mustache is Harry Vaughn, another old resident. It was he who insisted that I accompany him in a reckless venture on the river in flood, to rescue some luckless tourists, a couple of years ago.”

“Ah,” said Alfred. “The occasion when your school enthusiasm for rowing finally served a useful purpose.”

“Not quite how I thought of it, Father. All the county river rescue boats had already been called out. I was prevailed upon as a trainee member of the volunteer fire department, and my presumed familiarity with small boats. Harry Vaughn threatening to brutally belt me about the head and shoulders with an oar had nothing to do with it … good morning, Doc, Miss Letty … Mr. Vaughn.”

“Good morning, Chef,” Doc returned, looking over his glasses at them. “I heard that your folks came to town.”

“Indeed. The bush telegraph is as active as always.” Richard answered, and Doc Wyler and Harry Vaughn both grinned; Harry Vaughn a bit evilly, as befitted a former federal marshal, and Richard sighed. “My parents, Albert and Dorothy Astor Hall – Stephen Wyler, but most everyone calls him ‘Doc’, Miss Letty McAllister, and Mr. Henry Vaughn. Father and Mum are here, doing a tour of the wine country, such as it is, and meanwhile have come to observe the rituals of celebration.”

“Charmed, I’m sure!” Dottie trilled, as gentleman half-rose from where they were sitting, while Miss Letty only nodded regally.

“There will be merriment and dancing tonight, before the fireworks display,” Harry Vaughn rumbled, with a significant look at Dottie. “May I claim a dance with your charming mother?”

“Only if you don’t plan on seducing her, afterwards,” Richard replied, rather nettled, while Dottie giggled, and Harry Vaughn settled back in his seat, looking rather smug. Miss Letty frowned – levity regarding sex outside of the marriage contract was a matter of which she sternly disapproved. Meanwhile, Harry Vaughn grinned, under his magnificently drooping soup-strainer mustache, and Richard hurried his parents on. When they were out of earshot of the Café, Dottie remarked, artlessly.

“Oh, was that dear Moira’s gentleman friend? I had no idea!”

“My sister Moira has a finely developed sense of duty,” Albert replied. “I am certain that Mr. Vaughn held information necessary to completion of her mission,”

“No, Father – it was purely a naughty weekend,” Richard answered, and Dottie upheld him.

“Dear Moira is entitled to whatever romantic romps she can indulge – the places that she travels to, the intrigues she encounters – a nice relaxing weekend with a handsome gentleman who isn’t trying to plant a knife in her back! Well, that’s her chosen career, and I do not judge – do I, Albert?”

“No, you do not,” Albert replied, the very image of the austere Englishman. “Much is required of an intelligence operative in their line of duty.”

Richard thought he had better not follow that any further. It was perhaps the closest that his father had ever come to admitting that Aunt Moira was a kind of distaff 007, with an official license to kill, seduce, or subvert, as the specific mission required.

23. June 2022 · Comments Off on From Luna City 11 – An Excerpt · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book, Luna City

Another excerpt from the untitled and unpublished memoir of Alasdair Duncan Magill, 1987. Chapter 53 – The Matter of Political Murder

 Miss Amory, our clerk-typist, called my attention to the telephone on a chilly spring morning, early in March, 1935. It was already past 8 o’clock, and I was uncharacteristically late, as our youngest son was teething, and had kept my dear wife and I awake for most of the night before.

“It’s Mrs. Mills,” Miss Amory said, covering the receiver with her hand. “Calling for you, personally, Chief. She says that she has just found the body of her husband, out by the alligator pond.”

“God save the mark,” I exclaimed. “The old reprobate is dead at last! What are the odds, hey? Bludgeoned, stabbed or shot by a jealous rival or fellow miscreant, do you think?”

“Really, Chief,” Miss Amory sniffed. “That’s not Christian of you to say such an unkind thing! The poor man is dead!”

“It may not be Christian, Miss Amory,” I replied. “But it is most brutally realistic; Charley Mills was a thief, a pervert, and a blight on the community of Luna City – and those were his good points. I’ll take Mrs. Mills’ call in my office.”

“Yes, Chief,” Miss Amory still sounded disapproving. On my way to my own office, I looked into the chief investigator’s small office next to mine, to see if John Drury had arrived; he had. And he was in confabulation with Sgt. Grigoriev, who’s countenance bore a worried frown upon it. John looked up at my rap on the door frame.

“Chief, it’s bad news,” he said with a grave expression on his own face, “There has been a message from the Marcus place. Sgt. Grigoriev has just been briefing me. The Professor’s oldest son has been found dead this morning – his face bashed in with especial violence – with a stone, round in back of their house. No idea of who did it the foul deed. Mrs. Marcus called us, just now. This last week the Professor was helping his son and some of their friends build a working ballista – and it’s one of those stones they were stocking up to throw with it which killed Sergei Marcus.”

“Oh, my god!” I exclaimed. “The professor – is he in especial danger, do you surmise? This is appalling news! We were charged with keeping him and his family secure!”

“I don’t think so, Chief,” John replied. “And we don’t know for certain if this was just some random mischance … or malice on the part of an assassin. In any case, I ordered Constable Vaughn to remain on guard at the Marcus’s house, until we can sort out the situation – if it is murder or merely an accident. Has there been any reports of unexplained strangers in town? We were charged with keeping track of that kind of thing…”

“Kapitan,” Sgt. Grigoriev spoke up. “There is one stranger in town … a young man riding on a …what-do-you say … an Indian motorcycle. With a sidecar. A very nice motorcycle. I wish for one of my own, Kapitan-sir. This young man, he has a dog with him, a splendid large dog. No, I do not wish for a dog. But this stranger in town – he is camping in the field by the Mills place since last week.”

“Most interesting, Sergeant,” I said, having come swiftly to a decision, knowing that Mrs. Mills was waiting to speak to me on the telephone. “John, I believe that I will go and speak to this person first while you and Sgt. Grigoriev begin investigating the death of Sergei Marcus … since I will need to go out to the Mills property anyway.” At his interrogative eyebrow lifted, I added an explanation. “It seems also that Charley Mills has also been found dead, out at his place. Miss Amory just told me. I still must speak to Mrs. Mills. We should compare notes this afternoon, upon completing a preliminary review of our respective corpses.”

John Drury whistled in astonishment. “It never rains but it pours, Captain! Two dead bodies in a single day! Some kind record for Luna City.”

“I know,” I sighed – for on the rare occasions when my police were lumbered with dead bodies, they usually arrived singly, and it was usually a matter of simple observation and deduction to arrive at the reason for their deceased state. The great (and purely literary) detective-sleuth Sherlock Holmes would have little in the way of exercising his deductive skills in Luna City; in fact, were he real, he would perish of sheer boredom, unless he took up the profession of deducing which dog or coyote was killing chickens. Once in my office, I picked up the receiver, a little astonished to still find Mrs. Mills still waiting.

“Mrs. Mills,” I said, by way of apology. “I am so sorry to have kept you waiting. It seems that we have experienced another sudden death in Luna City – but let me extend to you my sympathies on the loss of your husband …”

“It is of little import to me,” Carolina de San Pedro Mills replied, sounding as if distraught with grief were the farthest thing from her mind. “We were married as a matter of convenience only – for the business, you see.”

“I hope that he did not suffer,” I ventured. I privately hoped the opposite very much. Mrs. Mills snorted, in a somewhat derisive manner.

“No, I rather think he did not,” she replied, decisively. “There was no mark upon him, save where he had lain heavily as he had fallen to the ground. He went down to feed his disgusting caimán – those three giant lizards in the pond – at sunset last night, and never returned.”

“And you did not think it strange that he never returned? And raised no alarm? Strange that would be, for a married couple…”

I swear that I could almost feel her shudder of revulsion, at a distance and over the tinny-sounding telephone line.

Dios mia!” Mrs. Mills exclaimed. “Think you that we shared a bed?! A room, even! No, my husband had his place, and I had mine. And that is all that you need to know.”

“One thing that I should ask, Mrs. Mills – have you touched or disturbed your husband’s body. It might complicate the investigation, so I should be informed if you have done so.”

“I did turn his body over,” Carolina de San Pedro Mills confessed. “For I thought that he might still be alive … I did not wish my husband dead, Senor M’Gill. But at the hour of sunrise this morning, he was quite cold and stiff. I … brought a blanket from his quarters to cover him. It seemed a decent thing to do. Besides,” and Carolina de an Petro, late the wife of Charley Mills sounded quite brutally practical. “Those dreadful black scavenger birds were already circling over the pond.”

18. May 2022 · Comments Off on Another Snippit for Luna City 11 – Liquid Treasure · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book, Luna City

(Richard has finally accepted the offer from Lew Dubois to begin as executive chef for the renewed Cattleman Hotel, having put the Cafe on the map, gastronomically speaking – but aware that he is becoming bored with the limitations. And for him – being bored professionally could have near-fatal consequences.)

Richard could not readily shed his established habit of rising well before sunrise – with the chickens, as Judy Grant cheerfully said it – or at least with their several roosters, all of whom were given to serenade the setting of the moon with an acapella chorus of cock-a-doodle-dos at five-thirty AM. He secretly rather enjoyed the brisk pedal along the darkened country road, as sunrise paled the eastern sky, the quietness of the streets, and the dimming gold of the old-fashioned gas lamps which lit the margins of Town Square and the area around the bandstand, which was the ornate center of the Square, as the sun rose in a glory of apricot and rose – very occasionally trimmed with crimson and purple clouds.

There was a van parked around the side of the Cattleman, with the logo of a national security firm emblazoned on the side. Richard paid it hardly any attention, save for noticing that there were a pair of genial gentlemen in overalls, messing about with drills, rolls of cable and some really impressive tool-kits, in and out of Lew’s office, the larger joint office and in the splendidly ornate and paneled bar, which was almost the crown jewel of the Cattlemen. He did a tour of the kitchen – mildly busy with breakfast for a scattering of hotel clients – and then retreated to the office to continue his research of the previous day. He pondered Lew’s advice, and considered it good … but still, the obsessive habits of a lifetime thus far niggled at him. Was it entirely cricket to spend less than eighty hours a week, in the object of his employment … or was that taking devotion to duty just a little too far in the pursuit of what Lew called a well-balanced life…

He was interrupted shortly before eleven by one of the overalled technicians, lurking hesitantly in the doorway of the office.

“’Scuse me, Chef,” the technician ventured. “D’you know where the big boss is … we got a bit of a problem with running the new line.”

“Mr. Dubois is around here somewhere,” Richard ventured, just as the great man himself appeared. That Lew was also wearing a groundskeeper’s Carhart jacket and a pair of heavy leather work gloves went without mentioning.

“Hey, Lew,” the technician confessed with relief. “There’s a problem with running the new cable … it just goes and goes and goes into the wall. Doesn’t come out where it’s supposed to. Stevo and I think there is a void, between the office and the bar. Can we have a squint at the blueprints again, just to make certain.”

“Of course,” Lew went to a tall, old-fashioned wooden cabinet, one fitted out with a series of shallow but large drawers. He pulled out several, before finding the one oversized envelope containing the diagrams of the ground floor offices of the Cattleman. They were done on outsized sheets of heavy paper in ink which had faded to a sepia shade – all heavily-detailed plans of each room, some adorned with sketches of the architectural adornments. Which, as far as Richard could see from a cursory glance over the shoulders of Lew and the tech, had been faithfully carried out, more than a hundred years ago. All three of them studied the linked plans for the various spaces on the Cattleman’s ground floor, joined presently by Stevo, the other security install tech.

“Hmm,” Remarked Lew thoughtfully. “I am not an architect – just someone who has had to become familiar with old buildings and their peculiarities – but it seems to me that there might be something anomalous, just there. Your cable should come from my office and emerge in that wall to the left of the back-bar … but it seems to me that there might be a space unaccounted for.”

Both technicians agreed, solemnly and with a degree of puzzlement.

“A secret compartment,” Richard ventured, with an air of insouciance. “Hardly an old mansion or listed pile in England is without a secret passage, staircase, or priest’s hole. They usually hide the door catch somewhere in the woodwork.”

“I wonder if you can find it, cher,” Lew ventured, “As you appear to be the expert in these matters.” There was nothing for it, but that all but to agree with Lew, and all – followed by an increasingly intrigued Bianca, trooped after Richard into the hotel bar room.

The bar in the old hotel had been kept open, maintained, and functioning long after most of the other facilities had been closed up and allowed to molder away. So the renovations in that area, performed by Roman Gonzalez’ construction crew under contract from Venue Properties had not been nearly as extensive as they had on the upper floors, to the offices, kitchen and ballroom. The barroom itself was a wonder of elaborate woodwork, with a long bar of Circassian tiger-striped walnut, the whole place adored with every possible ornate wood and brass frill that the late 19th century Beaux-Arts designers hired at great expense by the Italian hotelier who hoped to make another small fortune in catering to the guests visiting the hot-water spa on the outskirts of Luna City. (He did end up with a small fortune, but alas, he had started with a large one.)

Richard, seeing that all were watching him consigned his credibility to the gods, and began feeling his way around the carved panels to the left of the stupendously ornate bar. The woodwork was certainly comprehensive; God only knew how many secret catches and all could have been hidden in all the curlicues, whorls and flourishes. Richard ran his fingers over the edges of all the panels, paying particular attention to those where the carving was most ornate, feeling for anything that might move, just a bit, under light pressure. To his utter astonishment, as well as that of those watching – including Lew, both the security technicians, Mr. Georges, Bianca, and a couple of waiters drawn by the unusual nature of the proceedings, on a boring morning after the breakfast rush – a particularly ornate bit of carving at the upper left corner of the panel just to the right of the back-bar, gave under slight pressure.

A small crack appeared in the floor-to-head-height paneling. To the astonishment of all, a segment the size of an ordinary door swung open, with a faint metal groan of protest, revealing a closet-sized space behind – a space lined with shelves and row on row of bottles, and several small barrels on the bottom row, all covered in a generous layer of gray dust, dust so thick that it looked for all the world like grotesque fur. Through a small hole at the back of the closet, a long length of clean cable coiled like a snake on the dusty floor.

“Holy cow!” breathed Stevo the tech. “A no-sh*t Sherlock secret compartment! He fumbled out his cellphone and snapped a picture. “I gotta share this with the boss, Lew! We’ve never found something like this before! What’s in it? Looks like the secret booze store, back in the day!”

“Those are quarter-casks,” Intoned Mr. Georges, casting a professional eye upon them. “Used to age various brandies, fine whiskeys, and other liquors in bulk. Depending on how long they have been aging, that is – if they have not leaked or evaporated.”

“My friends, there might be a fortune, concealed for how long…” Lew mused. “And did no one, not even our cher Roman, who oversaw all the renovations of this place … ever detect the presence of this secret cellar?”

“I guess not,” Bianca was already dialing on her cellphone, “As far as I know – he did most of the work on the ballroom, the restaurant, and the upper floors. There was no need to do much more than paint the plaster and polish up the paneling in the barroom.”

“Indeed,” Richard agreed. “As far as I recall, the bar was the one space in the Cattleman that was kept in pretty good nick, all the way along. There was no need to do anything more than a lick and a promise and dust the lights as far as the renovations went.”

Lew was nodding in agreement. “Yes, this is a most unexpected bonus … Cherie, my dear Mademoiselle Bianco, would you be so good as to dial …”

“Mademoiselle Stephanie,” Bianca replied smartly. “Already on it, boss … Hello, Steph? You should come to the Cattleman, tout suite … we have just made the most amazing discovery!”

Lew, with a smile of beatific pleasure, turned to Richard and Mr. Georges and remarked,

“Ah … I have the most expert staff, do I not? They do what I want done before I can even voice the orders.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Georges had already stepped gingerly into the closet, carefully avoiding the coil of cable on the floor, and gently pulled out one of the bottles, handling it as carefully as if were a particularly fragile infant. He blew the remaining dust from the bottle, and the faded sepia-tinted label. He adjusted his glasses and read carefully from the label.

“San Pedro Five-Star Gold Brandy … Luna City, USA … vintage 1924. Sacre bleu …” and he went off in a long babble of agitated French to Lew.

“What is it?” Richard whispered to Bianca, who had finished the call on her cellie, and put it away, meanwhile looking into the dusty compartment as if the door to the sacred tomb had just had the rock rolled away from the opening.

Bianca murmured in holy awe, “It’s a cache of Carolina San Pedro’s brandy, Chef. The last bottle of it to come on the open market sold at auction for $25,000. A single bottle! It was distilled from a brew of local grapes, just after Prohibition went into effect. It’s almost a hundred years old. How many bottles are there, Mr. Georges?”

“At least a hundred,” Mr. Georges reverently considered the dark bottle in his hands. “And six quarter-casks, which should hold approximately fifty liters each. That is, assuming that much has not evaporated over time. The profit for the hotel and VPI will be incalculable.”

“An amazing find,” Richard mused, already considering how a very small quantity of such an amazing distillation could be made to serve the cause of haute cuisine, although some experts felt that using a rare liquor in cooking was a blasphemy.

“The matter of ownership will be a question of the most complicated to unravel,” Lew conceded. “For Venue Properties has only leased the hotel from the municipality, which is the owner of record. Ownership of this cache must be adjudicated, since it’s existence predates our agreement to lease, renovate and manage. I have always conducted business with the highest of ethical consideration …” he turned to Bianca, who was already dialing her cellphone.

“Mayor Bodie,” Bianca said into it. “Bianca Gonzalez, at the Cattleman… Good morning – are you sitting down? We have just made the most interesting discovery … and Mr. Dubois thinks that you should come and see it, right away…”

Lew smiled again, and whispered to Richard, “See, mona mi? Before I might even say the words, my staff knows what should be done.”