From the next Luna City book – due out in October, 2016 -
“I have absolutely got to get away from the madness,” Richard confessed morosely, to Araceli, Patrick and Chris, on a Sunday afternoon at the Gonzales’ residence – which had become almost as comfortably familiar to him as the Age of Aquarius. “Even if just for a couple of days. It’s becoming unbearable. That wretched Gunn person is glaring at me around every corner, as if it were all my fault.”
“He must have heard that Collin Wyler is coming to spend Christmas at the ranch this year,” Araceli nodded in sage agreement. “Patricia says that’s because he’s between wives again … I suppose Gunnison Penn must think the hunt for the Mills Treasure is on again, in a big way.”
“He was on Coast to Coast a couple nights ago,” Patrick agreed. “And that’s what he was all about … the treasure, and how the Wylers and VPI and whoever are all about deliberately sabotaging his search.”
It was the second weekend after the Luna City Players’ benefit performance, the second weekend after the sighting of what had become known across the pseudo-scientific tabloids as “The Mysterious Luna City Lights”. The Age of Aquarius – once a quiet, semi-deserted backwater save for a few days around the yearly solstices and equinoxes – was now a lively and exciting place, filled almost to overflowing with treasure hunters, detectorists, and UFO hunters. The Grants, of course, were mostly pleased. Even for what they charged for a day or a week – which was more of a token gesture for parking or camping there than a serious fee – their business accounts were profitably fattened to the point where Sefton was considering renovating the old conblock latrine and bathhouse, served by the hot spring which had given the impetus to the original owner of the property to think of setting up as a destination spa and resort. Sefton also grumbled about the constant racket upsetting the chickens and goats, but Judy was pleased beyond words, at having another outlet and audience for her Tarot cards, her organic simples and natterings about old-world “magick.”
“I liked it out there because it was quiet,” Richard continued, still simmering over how his own refuge had been sabotaged by the constant influx of strangers over the summer. “After days in the Café, and people coming and going, it’s restful to go out … well, it used to be restful to go out to the trailer and unwind. Watch the goats, listen to the chickens, the wind stirring the leaves. It was positively blissful. Now … it’s full of people, pottering around with their metal detectors … waving around their sensor wands and standing up in front of each other’s video cameras as if they were on the B-Bloody-BC yammering on about their search for whatever … it doesn’t even let up after dark, either … because a good third of them are hunting for ghosts, and they sit up in the bushes, whispering to each other. I swear, if anyone shows up looking for something like the Loch Ness monster living in the river, I’ll give it up and sleep nights in the Café Ladies. And those bloody cameras give me the pip.”
“That bad, uh?” Chris replied, with sympathy. “Look, if you really feel like that – you can crash at my place until it quiets down, some. All I hear is traffic on the road, and sometimes the crunch of someone hitting the bridge abutment… don’t mind that at all, reminds me of home. I’m going up to Marble Falls for a marathon, the weekend after Thanksgiving – you’d have the place to yourself, then.”
“I might have to take you up on it,” Richard said, although he was not entirely in earnest – still, it was his chance to vent to a sympathetic audience. This was over a meal of hamburgers, skewers of barbequed chicken, fire-roasted whole ears of corn, and a number of hearty salads. Araceli and Patrick, with their circle of friends had long ago fallen into the habit of those Sunday afternoon cookouts. By degrees, Richard had fallen into the habit of joining them; on this particular Sunday, the other participants included Chris, Sylvester, Kate Heisel, Jess Abernathy and Joe Vaughn.
(“Do you good to have a social life, Chef,” Araceli had urged him some months ago, fixing him with that severely analytical eye. “You need to get out more – hang out with real people.”
“Likely I do need to hang out with people,” Richard replied in a waspish mood. “That is – with people who don’t tell me I need to get out more and hang out with people.”
“There, you see!” Araceli pronounced in triumph. “Exactly what I said. Come over on Sunday – steaks from Doc Wyler’s cow, that we bought half of, this year. You’ll be amazed at how good, grass-fed beef can taste.)
“You know,” Patrick announced, with a broad grin. “I think it’s time for a road trip. How about we all go to Marble Falls – and cheer on Chris. I have that weekend off, you and ‘Celi can close the Café … I mean, who’s gonna be eating out over that weekend?”
“Where the hell is Marble Falls?” Richard demanded, and Patrick’s grin widened even farther. “About two and a half hour’s drive north. Heart of the Hill Country … it will be a blast. Let’s do it, ‘Celi – leave the kids with Abuelita, and have some fun! Like we used to do…”
“I’d be game,” Joe set aside his beer, and exchanged a quick glance with Jess. “If we can stop over in San Antonio for an hour or so … Jess and me, we have an errand to do there. Y’all can show Ricardo the Alamo … long as he promises not to pee on it. We can meet up at Buc-ees in New Braunfels and convoy to Marble Falls – all of us.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Patrick beamed. “Uncle Jesus says it’s OK to borrow Romeo’s Fifth-wheel – and that thing sleeps six!” while Richard demanded, “What in hell is Buc-ees?”
“You have to pee to believe!” Patrick replied and laughed so hard that he choked on a mouthful of beer.
“Count me in,” Sylvester said, and Kate chimed in agreement, adding, “I can do a quick report on it for ‘Talk of the Town.’”
“Look,” Sylvester brought out his cellphone and worked some miracles of inquiry on it. “Got a nice RV park, near enough as to make no difference … some rental cabins and a space for the RV – are we game?”
“Call me a ten-point buck,” Joe answered, with a distant look on his face. “Yeah, we’ll be at Marble Falls to cheer for Squid Medic when he crosses the finish line … but then Jess and I have some other plans – don’t we, Babe?”
“We do,” Jess replied – and Richard didn’t even try to figure out what that was all about.
So that was how, ten days later, Richard tossed a small overnight bag with some toiletries and a change of clothes into the back of Chris’ little red coupe. Chris didn’t hit the gas until they were well out on the main road north, in deference to the tires and suspension system.
“Man!” he exclaimed, as they spurted a bit of gravel behind them, and the speedometer steadily climbed to a hair below the legal speed limit. “I wish Sefton could get one of the Gonzalezes to come over with a scraper and level that broke-ass driveway of his. I shit you not, Ricardo – I drove on better-graded roads in Iraq, and that is saying something.”
“No argument here,” Richard agreed. “I just don’t think the Grants really expected all the traffic this year. I know I didn’t…” He was still simmering over the regularly-occurring medium-distance death-stare from Gunnison Penn, although they did their mutual best to avoid coming from within twenty feet of each other, under the terms of the legal injunction. Obviously, it still rankled with Penn.
“Well, never mind, bro!” Chris seemed unusually light-hearted. “The open road calls! We meet up in New Braunfels at noon, hit Marble Falls by mid-afternoon, set up camp … and then then I gotta be ready at oh-dark thirty. I’m aiming to do the whole course in under four hours, based on my last half-marathon. Hey, you should join me sometime – you’d get a kick out of running and the exercise would do you a world of good.”
“Riding my bike supplies that need, thank you,” Richard answered. “Frankly, I couldn’t see the appeal, even when I was at school. Run around and around the track, looking at the backsides of all the fellows ahead of you? Nothing more boring can be imagined, and since I’m not a poof, I didn’t even get any jollies from the exercise.”
“You could join a club or something,” Chris shrugged, echoing Araceli’s earlier words. “You need a social life, for sure. Hey – you could learn to drive, even. Widen your horizons beyond Luna City.”
“I like my horizons just as they are,” Richard argued. “I agreed to join you all on this little jaunt – isn’t that enough?”
“True, dat,” Chris slanted a sideways look at him. “OK, so no more bugging you about getting out. But still – you ought to learn to drive, like a real American.”
“I will take that advice into active consideration,” Richard said, in such a flat monotone that Chris dropped the subject at last.
They zoomed northwards along Route 123, which angles north and west through the gently-rolling ranchland country, stretches of pastures and thickets of oak, cedar and hackberry trees, interspersed with small towns like Stockdale, Sutherland and La Vernia where it was necessary to slow down, and now and again obey the strictures imposed by a stop sign or a traffic signal light. Those towns all looked rather like Luna City absent the grandeur of Town Square, no matter if they went straight through the town center or around the outskirts; a row of businesses, a straggle of cottages and double-wide trailers, a sign boasting the prowess of the high school football team – and then out into the pastures and groves again, dotted with grazing cattle and the occasional oil or natural gas pump or tank.
Until they came to San Antonio – the city, which from the southern approach was not one of those sprawling ones, attended by a steadily denser concentration of suburbs, strip malls and industrial parks. It seemed to Richard as if Chris’ coupe topped one last rise of the highway ribbon – and there was the city, a modest gathering of high-rise towers just ahead.
“I promised you a look at the Alamo,” Chris grinned. “You can’t say you’ve been to Texas without you see the Alamo…”
“I am breathless with anticipation,” Richard commented, with a complete lack of emotion. Half an hour later, after Chris had deposited the little coupe in a city parking garage, and they had walked down one street, turned an urban corner and sauntered down another, Richard brought much more feeling into it. “Stone the bloody crows – is that it? It’s … so small – it never looked like that in the movies!”
Chris was laughing, in what Richard considered to be a completely heartless manner. “Ricardo, man – that which you see before you was only the least part of a larger establishment – the post chapel of a frontier garrison, as it was. The original place – well, the walls around it went all around the outside edge of this plaza – most of it mud-brick and a single room deep. The chapel and the long building next to it were made of stone. Prolly why they lasted so long. But come on – you gotta see the inside, and the list of names. There were some of you Brits fighting here at the last, you know. And a mad Scot who played the bagpipes, too.”
Borne along on Chris’ unaccountable enthusiasm, and interested in spite of himself, Richard submitted to being dragged along. It was barely mid-morning on a Friday; the pleasant and oddly-shaped plaza was not particularly crowded. The classically Victorian bandstand reminded him of the one in Luna City. At every few paces, Chris pointed out a significant place where something or other had occurred –
“You come here often?” Richard finally asked, as the heavy wooden door closed after them with an ecclesiastically serious thud.
“All the time, when I was at BAMC,” Chris answered, in hushed and reverent tones. “Miz Alice and Miz Letty used to bring me, when I could get a day pass. There’s a nice garden at the back. Miz Letty, she was doing some research at the Daughters of Texas library – that’s around the other side. Miz Alice – she would get tired, and we would go sit in the garden, wait for Miz Letty to get done. And she would tell me stories about this place, about her family, and I’d talk about J.W., mebbe. And then we would walk around to this old-school deli place on Commerce and have Reuben sandwiches and real old-fashioned root-beer …”
“You sound as if you are fond of the place,” Richard commented. “As well as being almost embarrassingly knowledgeable.”
“I am,” Chris laughed, sounding slightly uncomfortable. “Miz Alice made it sound … you know, real to me. And Miz Letty – she knew so much. Between the two of them, I could see it in my head, you know? They were just guys. Real guys. Betting they talked dirty, knew that likely they wouldn’t ever see their families again, but that they trusted the ones to their right and left … and they had something to believe in, at the end. Did you see that Billy Bob Thornton move about the Alamo? I did. There was a bit in it that stuck with me – Colonel Travis saying that Texas was a second chance. That’s just what Luna City was for me; a second chance. Bet it was for you, too. A second chance at getting something right in your life. Something meaningful to hold to and believe in, a chance for something real and good, for friends that believed in you … well, anyway. This is the sacristy room – where the womenfolk holed up in at the last. And there’s the list of the garrison. See any names you know?”
“Not a one,” Richard replied. “But … which was the crazy Scot with the bagpipes?”