Posts Tagged ‘Mystery’

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Okay, so Reveille In Red is off and running. Here are the opening bars of the song:

CHAPTER ONE

The one good thing about getting older is that there are far many more opportunities to drink wine and relax—for other people. Things are a little too busy for me to attempt such a passtime. Julie, my wife, likes to have a little wine now and again, usually on a Saturday or a Sunday night, and while I have tasted the stuff, I couldn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, be considered a serious wine-drinker. Or a drinker of any kind of alcohol in any appreciable quantity, for that matter. First of all, I have to have my wits about me at all times. Second, I never particularly liked the way it made me feel.

So when I got invited on a tour of the Fredericksberg, Texas wine country through the Austin Chamber of Commerce—one of those “reciprocity” deals that is really little more than flagrant promotion—I didn’t exactly snap at the chance. But when I did give finally give the nod and accept the invitation—and received two tickets for my troubles and for my modest donation—it was with an eye toward treating my wife to the kind of life she’d wanted to live all along, or at least it was in my estimation. Possibly, I couldn’t have been more wrong about everything.

The worst disasters typically begin that way: good intention gone awry; an effort to kill two overly vociferous song birds with the same sling bullet, which in this instance included Constance Fielder and her pushy public relations methodology, and the realization during our little talk that it was perfects true—I rarely treated my wife to anything except a dozen roses on Valentine’s Day, taking her car down to have it washed, waxed and detailed some time in the neighborhood of her birthday, and the obligatory Christmas and Anniversary presents.

“Bill,” Constance said while standing in front of my desk, as if she belonged there and had real business to conduct, “when was the last time you treated Julie to anything? I mean, aside from taking her to dinner?”

“Well,” I began, and was fully ready to charge forward with the details of our last trip to South Texas, but then I remembered that Julie had spent most of her time in the hotel room while I was out running around trying to figure out who was killing people and turning their bodies into instant mummies. I thought of our most recent trip to the re-opening of a blues bar in Houston, but then, on the heels of that, came the realization that it had all been for my benefit.

I regarded Constance’s serious face and steady eyes, then sighed and leaned back in my chair.

“How much, Constance? How much is my conscience going to cost me?”

“Three hundred dollars. It’s the best deal you’ll ever get your thoroughly used and overly abused conscience.”

I opened my desk drawer, withdrew my personal checkbook, opened it and started writing.

“You won’t regret it,” Constance said.

As I wrote, I realized that it was all my fault to begin with. Constance and Jack had divorced a couple of years back, and Constance had been sitting in my office, quietly sobbing while I went over what Jack had done to their portfolio in the months and years leading to their breakup. I did two things for her that day: I recommended one of the best divorce attorneys in Austin to her, and when she asked me, “What am I going to do with my life?” I told her about the opening that I’d heard about with the Chamber of Commerce. All by way of saying that it always comes home to roost. No good deed…and all that.

I finished writing the check, tore it out of the book and handed it to her.

She gave me an envelope in return.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“It’s your tickets. Two tickets to paradise.”

“Paradise,” I said. Full blown in front of me a panorama came into view: Julie and me sitting outside under an awning with half-empty wine glasses in front of us, crickets chirping in the scrub brush nearby, a vast field of grape vines stretching out to the horizon and the sun going down behind the farthest hill.

Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the stark beauty of South Central Texas with its rolling hills, stubby trees, and its often dry, sun-baked earth. But I do have a problem with the passage of time, or specifically, with time wasted wherein something that could be accomplished is being frittered away like money flowing through the hands of a wastrel.

Time. My life was all about time.

And then Constance, a late middle-aged and diminutive woman given to flowery apparel and almost obnoxious optimism, did something funny with her face. She smiled, got a little giddy-looking, and reached across my desk and put her hand on top of mine and squeezed it. “Oh, I so envy you, Bill Travis. You with your beautiful wife and your wonderful family. And now you get to go romance her all over again.”

“All it takes to romance her, Constance, is eggs for breakfast and banana pudding for dessert.”

“Oh, poo,” she said. She turned around, sashayed across my office while doing a little happy dance, then turned and said, “This makes me feel young, Bill, so I’m not going to let you ruin anything for me.”

“Goodbye, Constance,” I said, but she was already gone out the door—with my three hundred bucks.

I sat in my chair and looked at the envelope in my hand. It was a plain, white envelope, with no address on it, all clean and pristine. It would be all too easy to pull up the address for one of my clients, write their address on it, slap a stamp on it and put it by the front door with the outgoing mail. But it felt a little more thick than just a couple of tickets.

I opened the envelope, since it was unsealed.

Inside, there was a brochure, and sure enough, it had a photo splash of a couple holding hands, looking out across a field of grapes. Inside the brochure there was a wine bottle posing next to a hogshead of cheese that no family of any size could possibly eat in one sitting, and below this was another, smaller photograph showing the wine label:

REVEILLE

There was a small bugler inked into the background, forever blowing his bugle.

This jogged a memory.

It had been in the paper a few days back. I looked around my desk, but no newspaper.

I got up, went out into the outer office, but Logan didn’t work on Friday afternoon. I poked my head in Penny’s office. “Hey, where’s my newspaper?”

“What newspaper?” she asked.

“I had a newspaper on my desk. Where’d it go?”

“I have no idea. For what day?”

“I think Tuesday. No, Wednesday.”

“The housekeeper comes every Wednesday night. She probably threw it away.”

“Oh.” Lost. So many things, irretrievably lost.

“I think I have Wednesday,” Penny said.

“You’re kidding.”

“I never kid about the newspaper.” She pushed with her feet and her chair rolled backwards. She opened a buffet bureau and I saw a stack of newspapers there.

She handed it to me.

I opened it on her desk and turned the page to the Local and State section, and found it.

WINERY DEATH INVESTIGATION ONGOING

“This is it!” I said.

“What?” She got up and looked across her desk at the paper.

“Hmm. Now why would you be interested in that?” she asked.

“Oh, I don’t know. Two tickets for a tour of the wine country were just dropped in my lap, and the brochure has this!” I pointed at the picture to the side of the article.

“A bottle of wine,” Penny said. “Very nice.”

“No. If you look close, it’s the same name, same logo as on the brochure.”

“So, you get to tour the winery where somebody died. That sounds…about right.”

I suppose I had made a spectacle of myself, because I suddenly became self-conscious. It had something to do with the way Penny was looking at me, with her head slightly cocked, as if something had been confirmed. Or worse, as if she thought she understood me.

“Never mind,” I said, and turned to go.

“Bye,” she said.

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Here’s the Author’s Note to Buffalo Bayou Blues. I reserve the right to change or add to it prior to publication, for which I’m staring May 1st dead in the face:

AUTHOR’S NOTE

When I was very young, my father took me on a tour of blues joints in the Houston area. You see, my father was one of the original Hellfighters. He worked directly under Red Adair, and Boots and Coots. Some of my earliest memories are of him going off for weeks at a time to fight oilwell fires in the Gulf. I would throw a wall-eyed fit whenever he’d go off like that. Later, while working for Brown & Root, he had his back broken on an oilwell platform during a hurricane, and thus had to “slow down” a bit. Therefore, he went from longshoreman to truck driver, and drove a rig for Skerlock Oil Company, headquartered out of Houston. And before all of this—I don’t remember any of it, because I was far too young—we lived down in La Marque, right on the Houston Ship Channel. So, I suppose it should be no surprise that my father would know Houston, and know it well. Maybe a little too well, if you take my meaning. If you’re an old-timer, and lived during those times—you would have to be in your eighties or nineties, but I’m sure there are a few of you still around—and were around the Houston area, chances are you met him, and if you met him, why, you knew him. His name was Nelson Wier, and he was a force of nature.

When I was no more than seven, my father took me to some of the back street dives, little more than juke joints, with clouds of blue cigarette smoke and loud “colored” music filling the air. My father loved those places. For my own part, I was instantly enthralled.

Since that time, I have loved The Blues.

From my point of view, it was a matter of course that I would be accepted by the many people I visited in those back street blues joints, even though, technically speaking, I’m whiter than an unbaked flour cracker. At that early age, I suppose I was already closing my eyes and moving my head to the backbeat, lost in the mood, ducking with the changes, and showing it all on my face—that other place, apart from my sleeve, where I wear my heart for all the world to see. Possibly, I looked ridiculous. But I felt the music. It was the most real thing I’d ever heard, and it literally moved me.

My father passed away on September 12, 2007. He never got to hold one of my published books in his hands. He never met nor got to hold his great-granddaughter. He never got to see me sign a book or speak before a crowd of fans. But all that’s okay. You see, he got to know me, and he instilled in me so many things that without him, there would be no Bill Travis. There would be no great love for Texas. Without him, life would have been dull, beyond belief. Instead, because of him and his influence, life has been indeed rich.

Far from a simple tribute to my late father, I wanted to convey, here in this little Author’s Note, a little something more than is evidenced by the foregoing story.

The blues isn’t simply music, or a genre of music. It is a way of life for many—and that path is not limited to people of color by any means.

Fast forward to about 2003, when I laid down the titles to no less than twenty-one Bill Travis adventures. When I got to Trinity Trio, the alliteration bug set in, and the next one had to be alliterative as well. My whole life was right there in front of me that day. I could pick and choose anything. But one thing came through at that exact moment. The blues. I had to write about the blues. Houston, of course, sprang into mind. Those old blues joints with their blue cigarette smoke and gently clicking billiard balls, and…that wonderful sound. You can’t think long about Houston without thinking about Buffalo Bayou, and thus the title sprang full-blown like Athena from my forehead. I wrote it down without batting an eye.

And guess what. Just the other day, I unearthed that original piece of paper with all those titles on it. The order may have changed, somewhat, and a few of those titles have changed a little, but they’re basically still there, and Buffalo Bayou Blues is written there, plain as day. Would anyone like to have that piece of paper? I’m thinking of either framing it or auctioning it off.

So what’s there to write about the blues? Well, for one thing, a good half a dozen mystery writers have made writing about the blues part and parcel of their career. Guys like Tim Bryant, whose Dutch Curridge character hails from Waco during the heyday of the blues era, specifically the later forties and early fifties. Then there’s Ricky Bush, whose books have ‘blues’ right in the titles, such as Howling Mountain Blues and The Devil’s Blues. And there are many more, but these two come to mind most readily. So, the blues have not only been done, they’ve been done well. And wouldn’t you just know it, the blues are rife with such sentiments as, ‘My woman done gone and done me wrong’ and ‘He kilt her right then and there.’ That is to say that lust and betrayal, heartbreak, suicide, murder and a host of the world’s other evils are inherent within the blues. The blues sing out with them. They tell the story of—well, Houston, and Texas, and everyone who has ever drawn a breath in either or both of the two. But mostly, the blues just sing.

I find it the easiest thing in the world to write about this topic. It’s sort of like breathing. It just flows on out there, and I don’t even have to think about it.

So, I hope you enjoyed this little excursion to a side of life that is seldom written about, seldom visited, and even rarer, brought up to the surface and exposed. Because, as Bill would likely tell you, there’s nothing done in the dark that won’t sooner or later be exposed to the light of day.

Okay, that’s about it.

For the die-hard among you—the faithful ones; those who keep coming back for more, and more, and still even more—this book was for you. It’s my privilege to know you and to write for you. Thank you for giving me every chance along the way to make good my word. You’ve been good to me, and you have my undying devotion.

Therefore, all my love to you and yours.

And as always, all the best!

George Wier
Austin, Texas

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The first chapter of Buffalo Bayou Blues:

You don’t know it’s a dream when you’re in it, usually.

I was borne along on the inexorable currents of the river, caught in the main flow between the distant banks of the fast-moving water, which was brown from the silted runoff from eroded ditches, construction sites, and perhaps washed-out back-country roads. My body turned and rolled this way and that, and no matter how hard I struggled against it, I was pushed along, of no more consequence than any other piece of flotsam. After awhile I became philosophical about it, even as I tried to right myself and swim toward shore. Should I stop struggling? The more I struggled it felt as though I fueled the power of the river with my own efforts against it.

There was something eerily familiar about being caught in the river; the deluge, the flash flood, whatever it was. The inescapable power of nature had finally caught up with me through the long years of my evasion, and was not going to let go. But even as it carried me along, I felt as though I knew this stretch of river. We had once been friends.

I detected that someone was watching me. Someone standing on the shoreline. I kicked and tried to spin that direction, and caught a fleeting glimpse of him, but was thrown beneath the surface.

I came up, sputtering muddy waters and trying to take on fresh air in the same instance, and even as I did, I felt his eyes on me. He was watching me. Watching me drown.

And that’s when I knew it was a dream.

I came out of it, abruptly, gasped and sat bolt upright.

*****

Hank Sterling was sitting in a chair beside the bed.

“Hank! What the hell?”

“You were dreaming. Didn’t want to wake you. Almost did there for a second, but you came out of it yourself.”

“What are you doing…in my room?”

He nodded. “I know it don’t seem right, but I had to tell you something. And seeing as how Julie and most of the kids are up at Nat Bierstone’s ranch for a few days, I didn’t think you’d mind me coming in and waking you up.”

“Except you didn’t. Wake me up, that is. I knew someone was watching me.”

“You couldn’t have, Bill. I was quite as a church mouse on Sunday morning.”

“Maybe you were, but a fellah knows when someone is looking at him.”

“Well,” he said. “Maybe you’re right. I doesn’t matter. The deal is that I’ve got a problem I need your help with.”

“What time is it?”

“Oh. Going on about four-thirty.”

“You’ve got a problem. At four-thirty in the morning?”

“I do,” he said.

“Well,” I reached for my shirt and slid it on, pushing my arms through the arm holes one at a time. It was my favorite around-the-house shirt, about fifteen years old, gray with light gray vertical stripes. Julie hated the thing, and kept threatening to throw it in the trash. I’d saved it from destruction time and again. I was attached to that stupid shirt, though more from her disdain, I realized as I thrust my hand through the narrow sleeves, than because I truly loved it. Sometimes the war doesn’t end. “What’s the problem?”

“I have to be in two places at once. I’m a pretty smart guy, Bill, but I never figured that one out satisfactorily.”

“No? A fellow who can defuse a landmine, can walk through a rocket barrage without a scratch, and he can’t be in two places at once. I’d say you’re slipping, pardner.”

“Maybe I am. Maybe I really am. Anyway, the deal is it’s not only two places at once, it’s two separate locales at the same time.”

“Uh. Okay,” I said. “Tell me about it.” And, of course, I found myself wishing like hell I hadn’t asked.

*****

Hank had gotten a call from an old friend, Willard Morgan, who was calling in a marker. It was an old promise going back to their days together during the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, when Willard had, as the story went, saved Hank’s life by going into a cave system near an airfield and bringing a wounded and bleeding Corporal Henry S. Sterling back to the light of day. At about the same time as the call from his old Army buddy, Willard, Hank had gotten a text message from the East Texas town of Carter in Atchison County, and specifically a lady name Bee, who was having second thoughts about dumping him forever.

“Hoot?” I asked.

“That’s Willard’s stage name. Hoot Morgan.”

“What kind of stage?” I asked.

“A music stage, Bill. Willard is a blues musician down in Houston. He’s up to his chin in something—he won’t tell me exactly what—but not only his own life, but that of his family is in danger. And I don’t know how to be in two places at once. It’s probably something stupid like a gambling debt, and that’s easy to handle. I’ve got enough money laying around to buy a damn casino. You said so yourself.”

“You do. And you do not want me to go visit Miss Bee on your behalf.”

“Not exactly,” he said.

I thought about it for a moment or two, then said, “I need to take a shower. Also, I’m hungry.”

“Of course. Not a problem whatsoever. You shower, I’ll get the coffee going and throw some bacon and eggs on the grill.”

“You know Julie’s kitchen rules, right?”

“I know. I know,” he said, and got up from the chair, headed for the door. “No metal utensils on the non-stick pans, no high heat on the aforementioned pans, no…” Hank went out the door and down the hall and his voice moved into other parts of the house, continuing the litany as he went.

I slapped myself lightly in the face as I looked in the bathroom mirror. “That, my friend,” I said to my reflection, “is for inviting your best friend to come live with you.”

I disrobed and turned the shower on, got the water good and hot.

“Hoot,” I said to myself, and climbed into the deluge.

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Here’s the Author’s Note to Trinity Trio, comin’ atcha soon!

AUTHOR’S NOTE

The Catholics say that confession is good for the soul. This must have some truth to it, or else I wouldn’t be so inclined to unburden myself, or at least not so easily. And it didn’t take any prompting either. Here’s the confession: I have to feel a certain way to slip into Bill Travis’s world.

There. I said it.

There can’t be any music playing, nor anything seriously going on. I have to be fairly well-rested and in equable health. And if these conditions are just right, and if my little mind’s eye GoPro cam into Bill’s world is turned on and tuned in, why then I can follow what’s going on and report it. Otherwise, uh uh. Which is the real reason why I have to have several projects going at once and also the real reason why these books are trickling out there like black strap molasses a week after New Years.

Mind you, now, once I’m “over there” in Bill’s world, and things are hopping and popping, why, I can just let it roll and it sluices out of the old barrel in one hell of a hurry, but that’s not typical until somewhere in the neighborhood of one-third of the way to the halfway-finished area of the book, not at the beginning. If I’m anywhere in those first knuckle-dragging neanderthal thirty to fifty pages, well, sometimes it’s slow going. I don’t know why that is, it simply works out that way.

So, like I say, multiple projects are called for.

While writing this one, my main “other” project has been what I call a “serious” work entitled Neptune’s Forge, an Antarctic mystery. And man, is that mystery dark. Also, it’s written in a completely different vernacular than anything else I’ve ever written. All the action takes place near the end of the 19th Century, and it started writing itself in the prose form of that era—sort of a melding of Joseph Conrad, Herman Melville, and Jack London. I’m not sure what or who I may have been channeling during that book—the ghost of Henry James, possibly?—but, oh man, if you read it, you’ll see what I mean. Between that book and this, it’s not only different continents and disparate times, it’s different worlds.

Here’s another confession, of sorts: I have interesting dreams.

This book is the only book I’ve ever written which appeared entirely in the course of a single night; a lone episodic saga. I was able to remember that dream—no, not in its entirety, but in its depth, its intensity, and in its feel. I’ll tell you, the dream was nowhere near as funny as certain passages in this book.

Humor, to my mind, is the knee-jerk reaction to “things that ain’t right.” It’s that plus the fact that you got the joke. You saw and understood it wasn’t right, and can therefore laugh at it. I heard a speaker once say that, “If you’re angry, then you haven’t gotten the joke yet.” I kind of appreciated that when I heard it. In fact, I laughed out loud.

Most of the humor in the Bill Travis books is unintentional. I’ll be in here (in my office, on my computer) writing, and Sallie will be in the bedroom across the way, reading what I wrote just a few minutes before (I’ll sometimes dash off a page or two and get them to her so as not to interrupt her reading of them by allowing her to reach the abrupt end) and suddenly she’ll laugh out loud. I’ll get up, go in there, give her a funny look until she notices I’m standing there, and then I’ll ask her, “What’s so funny?”

She’ll say, “Oh, it’s this part here,” and then she’ll read it aloud to me, and I’ll be shocked to find out it was actually kind of humorous. I mean, I’m sort of stunned by that. I hadn’t set out to do it, this I promise you, it’s just that it sometimes works out that way.

And another thing I’ve noticed is that it doesn’t happen like that if I’m feeling the least bit off. If I’m having to force it, then it’s usually simply not right. I will, in fact, find myself backing up (a painful word here, but since we’re being all sober and truthful, the actual word is “deleting”) to where it first started going south and re-writing it, or even stopping and waiting until it feels right to proceed. Running that red light (by which I mean, writing when I shouldn’t be—when I have to expend effort to do so) can sometimes result in a pretty bad wreck.

All this by way of saying that if there’s not some real life humor on the printed page, then it’s just not a Bill Travis mystery the way it should be. Now, I know, sometimes things can get pretty dark. They can get downright real and dicey and the old pump is thudding in the chest and that old battery acid taste of adrenalin is coating the tongue, and man, even I don’t know what’s going to happen next. But even then, even there in the pitch blackness with the bad people running around in the dark trying to kill our friend Bill, there had better be something to laugh at, somewhere.

I suppose, in the final analysis, this is why Bill and I are still hanging together, and he allows me to ride along in the back seat with him and Hank up front. It’s because we both know these old back roads, we know this neck of the back woods like the backs of our hands. We’ve both been there, we’ve dodged fate and lived to fight another day, and we’re able to laugh about seeing the elephant. (By the way, that’s what the old campaigners used to call the action on the battlefield—“seeing the elephant.” I suppose that’s a nod to the Boer War, or something.) Because, let me tell you, we’ve seen the elephant—or at least the elephant as it exists in East and Central Texas—and it can still be a pretty big bastard.

That reminds me of the old redneck joke: The first guy says, “What are the three most dangerous words you can hear?” The second one replies, “I don’t know, what are they?” The first guys says, “Hey, watch this!” You know when you hear that, you’re in some deep kem-chee. Or, at least you are where I come from.

Well, the truth of the matter is that I’m a bit older now, and hopefully most of my kem-chee days are in the dark years of the ancient past. They are, that is, until Bill Travis dredges them up for me and shows them to me.

But hey, what are friends for?

All right, I guess that’s about it.

Y’all take care, until the next time. And in the meantime…

All the best to you and yours,

George Wier
Austin, Texas
November 12, 2016

Sometimes the most fun writing these things is the dialogue. Here’s a little snippet from the forthcoming The Lone Star Express:

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Apparently anything can go wrong.

The train was slowing. Not majorly slowing, but the vibration and the rocking seemed less, and the lights passing in the night seemed to go by more slowly. I had swept most of the broken glass—all that wasn’t beneath Frank—into the corner where I had gotten the blankets, and Frank was trying to get to his feet.

“You want to help me up?” he asked. He had his left arm braced on a bar, trying to lever himself to his feet.

“I want you to lay there,” I said.

He faltered for a moment and lay back down. “I’m gonna try again in a minute. By the way, you make a terrible nurse.”

“I do.”

“Bill? Over!” The voice over the radio JoJo’s.

I picked up the radio and keyed the mic. “Yeah? Over.”

“Get up here. I need an extra hand. Only came with two of them. Charlie’s coming back there to spell you because he can’t…”

I waited. “Can’t what? Over.”

“Never mind that. Can you come on over?” Then, uncertainly, “Over.”

“Come over where? Over.”

“Come forward until you find me. Over.”

“Can we stop saying ‘over’? It’s getting old. Over.”

“Sure. Over.”

“Okay. I’m coming…uh, over.”

There was a beat of a pause, then, “So when are you going to stop saying ‘over?’ Over.”

“Right now,” I said, and released the mic. I waited, then keyed the mic again. “I’m also leaving off the ‘out’.”

“Uh huh.”

With that done, I looked back down at Frank. “You gonna be okay there for a few minutes? Charlie’s coming back here.”

“I heard.”

I turned to go, but then heard him whisper, “Amateurs.”

“What was that?” I asked.

“Nothing. Just go.”

I opened the door onto the narrow brim beneath my feet, and for a moment began to doubt where I was going anywhere. The problem was the blackness of the night outside the caboose. The dim lighting from inside cast my shadow onto the rear of the refrigeration car in front of me. When I stepped a little to the side, I could see the brim of the car three feet in front of me and the faintly illuminated rungs of the later, but the problem was that when I stepped back in order to prepare myself to lunge forward, the ladder vanished into the darkness.

JoJo saved me with a squawk over the radio: “Bill, there’s a light switch by the door.”

I flipped it, but at that instant it decided to burn out. The flare was brief, and I knew if from all the times I had turned on my closet light or my back porch light and the tiny filaments in the bulb of glass decided to take the opportunity to check out.

I keyed the mic. “Just burned out. Here goes nothing.”

“It’s a piece of cake,” she said, and silence ensued.

“I now officially miss ‘over’,” I said.

“Yeah.”

“Will you two can the chatter?” Corky’s voice came over the radio. “We’re losing pressure fast.”

“I know. I know,” JoJo said. “Give us a minute.”

“Or five,” I said.

“You’ve got about four, and then this thing is coming to a stop and we’ll have to bank the fire.”

“What’s that mean?” I asked.

“Starve it of oxygen,” Leo’s voice stated.

“Just aim and jump,” JoJo said.

“Okay,” I said. “Everybody shut up. Here I come.”

I turned the radio off, put it in my pocket, stepped to the side to let the dim light through.

Behind me, Frank shouted, “Just jump!”

“All right, already. Everybody’s a critic.”

I studied the rung I was going to grasp, and where I would have to put my feet. I counted from ten to one, then decided to start all over.

It came unbidden into my mind at that moment. One time Jessica and I were playing one-on-one basketball in the driveway and she was standing her ground from well past the free-throw line, and I couldn’t get past her. I dribbled, held the ball, dribbled and stepped, held it again, and then a feeling came over me. It was a sense of rightness. Why was I trying to get closer to the basket when all I needed was that feeling? I had height on Jessica, and I knew there was really nothing she could do. I dribbled once more, made as if I were going to step again, but instead leapt straight up and threw. The ball sailed up in a beautiful slow motion arc, as if what I had done was the laziest thing in the world, then went through the net without touching the hoop. It was game point. Jessica’s shoulders slumped and she said, “How am I supposed to defend against that?” to which I replied, “You don’t. There’s no defense against that.” “What do you call that?” “It’s a thing wonderful and rare. It’s called a sense of rightness.” The next morning I was awakened by the sound of a basketball banging off of the backboard. I looked out the window, and there was Jessica, practicing from past the freethrow line. She would jump straight up and throw, miss, try again and miss. Finally, as I watched, she got it. Then she stood there and I watched as the implication sunk in. And that was my gift that day to her.

I stood there in the night and waited. When it came, I recognized it and didn’t hesitate. I jump forward and my overly large shadow in front of me shrank. The rung of the ladder came into my hands at the same moment that my feet came down exactly where they were supposed to land. I started up without a second thought. There’s something to be said for rightness.

It’s coming down the embankment at you with a full head of steam! Here’s a taste:

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Our reverie was interrupted by a blast from the horn.

“Do you think…?” I began.

“Probably just coming to a crossing and he’s giving it the horn. Have to do that by law.”

The horn blasted again, was cut short, and then once more.

“Crap!” Corky said, and was suddenly in motion. “Something’s wrong.”

I dropped Perry’s baseball on the nearest seat, tucked the note in my shirt pocket and followed.

We went hurriedly through the next car—an even more dilapidated passenger car—through a door and across to the engine. I followed Corky up a small flight of steps. At that moment the brakes began to engage.

Out the front window, about two hundred yards away, was a truck sitting across the track. The single headlamp from the train speared it and light reflected back at us off the driver’s window, the hubcaps and the front bumper.

“I’m not sure I can stop in time without…really stopping.” Charlie said, and there was fright in his voice.

However sharp Charlie’s eyes were—and they had to have been terribly sharp to pick up the truck from more than half a mile back—my vision has always been excellent, particularly my night vision.

Several other vehicles were stopped off to the side of the tracks, a little closer to us than the truck that was blocking our path. I noted two figures closing in toward the tracks ahead of us, and then a third running up. They had rifles or shotguns in their hands.

“Don’t,” I said.

“Don’t?” Charlie asked. “Don’t what?”

“Don’t stop. The truck won’t hurt this train, will it?”

“It might scratch the paint, but that’s about it.”

“Then don’t stop. We won’t even feel it, will we?” I asked.

“No, we won’t,” Charlie said. “Why not stop?”

“Because, it’s a trap. They put the truck there to scare us into stopping. And those guys are gonna start shooting the minute they realize we’re not. Stopping, that is. But if we stop, then they’ve got us for sure.”

“Damn.” Corky said. “Up, Charlie. Let me do this. Ya’ll get down.”

The side window was open, and the second Corky hit the driver’s seat, he stuck his head out the window and squinted.

“Yeah, they’re gonna shoot,” he said.

Then he poured on the juice. I had to reach a hand out to check myself from tumbling back into Charlie.

The first shot was a pang off of steel somewhere on the exterior. Charlie and I ducked and Corky hunkered down in the driver’s seat. The front glass picked up a spray of buckshot, but it merely chipped the glass. Then there were many such sounds, like someone setting off a string of firecrackers.

“We’re gonna hit it!” Corky shouted, the excitement in his voice both fearful and amused in the same instant. Then he stuck his arm out the window and shouted: “Go to hell you sonsabitches!”

His arm came back inside and there was the sound of something crumpling, not unlike someone clapping a paper bag full of air between their hands, followed by the spectacle of a large object coming up over the windows and onto the roof above us. The truck tumbled across the steel roof like a giant eating its way through a stack of steel fifty-five gallon drums. An instant later there was a loud, shrill scrape as what was left of it fell off to the side. Which side, I wasn’t sure. I realized then that Corky must have given them his middle finger in conjunction with his words.

I stood up, went back down the steps to the deck and went through the doors of the first passenger compartment. I was met by JoJo.

“What the hell was that all about?” she asked.

“You okay?”

“Yep.”

“Someone tried to stop us. The put a truck in our path, we ran over it, and they started shooting at us.”

JoJo laughed. “They tried to attack a train? With a pickup truck and some guns?”

“Yeah.”

“Idiots,” she said.

“Yeah. Only, I’m wondering who the hell those guys are, and what they want?”

“Hmph.”

We exchanged nods and passed each other.

A bit more on the Antarctic mystery:

No fires were to be lit upon the ice. This was well understood by Gleese, by Tomaroff, and Kroones, but a few of the Argentinians started a fire and this nearly unhinged Kroones, who cursed them and made a show of stamping it out. The language barrier was thus overcome by example.

From the story that Gleese had, Kroones was missing two of his toes to frostbite. He was on one of the early Arctic exploration teams with Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, who had found the northeast passage during the Vega expedition of 1878, and after a falling out with Palander of the Swedish Navy, had become an explorer in his own right, albeit a penniless one.

Gleese liked the Dane. He was a hard-bitten soul of few words, preferring the company of dogs to men, and could abide no ignorance or foolhardiness in any man other than himself. Gleese had found him alone —but for a small pack of dogs—in a room above a tavern in the extreme northeastern Greenland village of Qaanaaq, that launching point for many of the early Arctic expeditions, including the trips to Prince Patrick Island where the fabled graveyard of the whales was believed to lie. He had put the question to Kroones by way of a local Inuit interpreter: was Kroones searching for the valley of the whales, the place where the great behemoths went to die? Gleese could not get a verbal answer out of the man, so he’d removed his necklace and showed him a small golden locket. Upon opening it, the scent of ambergris filled the room and the dogs began to howl. Kroones’s eyes grew wide in wonder.

Gleese assuredly had been looking for the mother lode of ambergris, and hired Kroones on the spot.

They found no ambergris—the strange, cancerous growth found in the guts of sperm whales which was the base of all perfumes, more valuable than gold or diamonds. Instead they had found death and all but bankruptcy. But that was seven years before.

Antarctica, Gleese believed, was made for men like Kroones. If there was any man alive who could see to it that he made it to the pole and returned, it would be the strange Dane.

            Yes, you’ve read that right.

            Poster.

          Die-hard  and sure, even live-strong lovers of The Bill Travis Mysteries can now display their love and pride and general awesomeness on their walls in the form of this amazing poster:

 

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          Awesome, right? You know you want one. Imagine. The colors! The mystery! The, even more colors! What a great way to keep track of where you are in the series and show off how many books you read.

 

               Here’s a photo of George with his very own poster:

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The poster is already available, so no waiting required (except for the time it takes to be shipped to you).  Get yours HERE.

 

-Jessica

 

 

 

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I know I’m a bit of a tease, but here is Chapter One of The Lone Star Express!

CHAPTER ONE

Invest heavily in ammunition. That’s the flip-side of the warning on seeking revenge—the one about first digging two graves. When vengeance seeks you out—as opposed to the other way around—it’s wise to be locked, loaded and ready. But you have to know it’s coming, first.

With me it’s always something like that.

I’m Bill Travis, and apparently I’ve never met a problem I didn’t welcome to come on in and pull up a chair.

It began, innocently enough, with the performance of a good deed. Which brings up the second warning that I somehow bypassed during all the sturm and drang of Governor Richard Sawyer’s final disposition: no good deed goes unpunished.

Here’s how it started.

*****

Former Texas Governor Richard Donegal Sawyer was born in the Louisiana canebrakes back in the dark days of World War II. As an infant he was brought to the Texas Gulf Coast and raised by his father, his mother having died in childbirth. At age sixteen, or thereabouts, Sawyer and his father had a falling out over the fact of the elder Sawyer’s being a bloodthirsty killer and crime boss. The junior Sawyer’s feet carried him all the way to West Texas where he settled down at a life of hard labor as an oil field worker in the Permian Basin—Midland and Odessa. With his passing, at the ripe age of eighty, someone had to go looking for his will. I got that duty, at the request of his granddaughter, Elizabeth.

I was no more than a few days back from Mexico when she asked me. The next morning, I got up before the crack of dawn and drove Julie and a whole truckload of kids down to Houston, and stopped by the Sawyer home.

Julie rocked the baby in the rocking chair in Sawyer’s living room while Elizabeth and I commiserated at the dining room table, thirty feet away. There were a couple of banker’s boxes open on the glass tabletop and the contents—old papers, invoices, random things like insurance policies and old hospital bills—were poured into each box so tightly that both were apt to burst at the seams. I understood the filing system. It’s easier to throw it all in a box, especially after you realize that every single scrap of paper would need its own separate file, and office supply stores don’t typically carry fifty-thousand file folders. At least not in the economy pack.

“Do you mind?” I asked Elizabeth, and gestured with my hand over one of the boxes.

“Please do. I’m afraid to touch any of it. I’ll get immersed in it and won’t see daylight for days on end.”

I nodded and pulled out a thick sheaf of papers, about a reams-worth, and dropped it on the table-top. What spilled out was expired insurance policies, licensing agreements for trucks and tractors, old pay stubs going back to the 1950s and 60s, random photographs; a lifetime’s worth of the detritus of those things that, at the time, could not be simply thrown away. The things a person keeps!

“Yuck,” Elizabeth said.

“Everything here tells a tale,” I said. “If you were to piece it all together, maybe put it in chronological order, you’ve got a piece of the story of your grandfather’s life, which is another part of the story of Texas.”

“I know it’s not all trash, but some of it’s trash,” she said.

“No doubt. Okay, we’re looking for his will. And you say that it’s not tucked away in a safe-deposit box somewhere?”

“Uh uh. I cleaned those out. It wasn’t in there.”

“Then it’s here. Let’s keep looking.”

It took thirty minutes, but I found it. Oddly enough, it was fairly recent and tucked into the front end of the second box, right where you’d put something recent, if you were archiving it. The will was signed, witnessed and notarized roughly six months previous.

I began reading aloud.

“He leaves the whole kit ‘n kaboodle to you, Elizabeth,” I said.

“Let me see.”

I handed it to her and she read it to herself, her lips moving soundlessly and her eyes going back and forth.

“It’s a lot of responsibility for a woman your age. But I’m sure you can handle it.”

“There’s a list of stocks, bonds, all kinds of…”

“Financial instruments,” I finished for her.

“Yeah. Those.”

“It’ll take some time to find out what they’re all worth. No doubt the bulk of them were in the safe deposit boxes.”

“There was a bunch of that stuff in there, but I didn’t understand any of them.”

“I’ll take a look at them for you. For now, I suggest you get your own safe-deposit box and put them away. But after you make photo copies of everything. I’ll need a copy of it all, and I can get Penny at my office working on it in her spare time.”

“Ha. If she works for you, Mr. Travis, I doubt she has very much spare time.”

I chuckled. “You’re probably right. Never thought about it. She doesn’t know it yet, but I’m naming her a full partner on Monday.”

“Then she’s been paying her dues all these years.”

“She has.”

Elizabeth turned a page, moved her eyes down and then struck upon something. She frowned.

“What is it?” I asked.

“A heading: Disposition of Remains.”

“Oh. They’ll need to know about this down at the funeral home. And pretty quick. Before I left Austin, I had a call from the Texas State Cemetery. They’re expecting to bury your grandfather there. It’s where we bury our Governors.”

“Not according to this, it’s not.”

“Crap. I’d better see it. Those guys may have already set aside a plot for him.”

She handed me the will.

“You’ll need to get this filed with the Probate Court as soon as—” I began, but by then my eyes were already taking in the bad news. My own name jumped out at me from the page:

DISPOSITION OF REMAINS

Since I buried my heart in Midland a long time ago, it is my wish that my body be buried there beneath the ancient mesquite. I purchased the plot in 1969, knowing full well that men can easily lose their lives in the oil patch. Further, I request that my friend Walter M. Cannon accompany my body by train to its final destination. If Walt Cannon predeceases me or, due to issues of health or availability, is unable to fulfill this wish, then I request that my dear friend, Bill Travis, should do so.

For many years I have been a supporting member of the Big Thicket Steam Association, headquartered in Palestine, Texas. I request that those old boys—those who have survived me—get the old ‘19 running for one last trip out west, and that I travel each mile between Austin or Houston and Midland by whatever rail line the boys may take. I pray that I may find my rest there in Midland.

“What’s the ‘Old ‘19′?” I thought, then realized I had said it aloud.

“I have no idea.”

“It’s okay. Tell you what, why don’t you ride with us down to the copy store where we’ll make three or four copies of this, then we’ll scoot by the funeral home, drop this off with the director and let him know how to contact me.

I detected a presence at my elbow. It was Julie, gently bouncing the baby.

“What’s going on?”

“It looks like I’m going to West Texas.”

“When? And how?”

“Soon,” I said, thinking all the while about bodies, temperature and steel boxes. “And by train.”

*****

I took the family back home to Austin after making certain that everybody on the Houston end of things was on the same page. The plan was for Governor Sawyer’s body to be transported to the State Capitol, there to lie in state for two days time where all Texans who wanted to might stop by and pay their respects. It’s a time-honored practice, and Sawyer’s will didn’t preclude it. I’m not certain it would have done any good if it had. In the final analysis, while we may suggest what should happen after we’re gone, it’s the family’s wishes that are usually honored, and at any time those wishes may be trumped by the state, particularly in the instance of a dignitary. In the end, we all render unto Caesar, right down to the toenails.

In the meantime, I had a ton of phone calls to make and correspondence to get out in preparation for what was to come—an event to which I was decidedly not looking forward.

I spent an entire day at the office, mostly listening to and receiving updates on Penny’s progress on the stocks and bonds.

At the appointed time—pre-arranged between my partner and me—Nat Bierstone came by the office. He was dressed in a blue jeans, red checkered shirt and suspenders. Penny gasped. She had never seen him in anything other than a business suit.

It had been three weeks since he had come by the office. Both he and I knew that he had already retired, but he was in to make it official.

“Mr. Bierstone, you look like…a real person!” Penny said. I listened from my office, having already glanced out my window when Nat pulled into circular driveway that runs behind the office and out the other side.

“Why thank you, Miss Taylor. Is Bill in? Thought I saw his car.”

“Come on back, Nat!” I called. “Penny, you come in here too.”

I waited. When they were both inside, Nat reached behind him and closed the door.

“Something is happening, isn’t it?” Penny asked. “Are you two about to fire me?”

“In a manner of speaking,” Nat said. She started to protest, but he raised a finger, then gestured to one of the two chairs in front of my desk. “Hush now and have a seat.”

“Yes sir,” she said.

Nat took the other chair, and by way of stretching the moment out interminably, fumbled in his blue jeans pocket for the front door key and the key to his office. He removed them from the key chain and said to Penny, “Hold out your hand.”

She did, and Nat placed the keys in it. “Don’t lose them until after you’ve made another copy. This is the only one to my office in existence.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Nat’s retiring,” I said, “effective today.” I picked up an envelope from the counter and handed it to him. He took it.

“What is that?” Penny asked.

“A check,” I said. “I just bought Nat’s half of the business.”

He looked at the envelope, poked a finger at the inside of the crease, as if he was about to open it with his finger, then instead handed it to Penny.

“You want me to open it for you?” she asked.

“I want you to keep it,” he said. “You can do whatever you want with it, since it’s yours.”

“I—I’m not sure what you mean.” Her voice trembled and had become very small.

“You know what it means,” I said.

“Let me do this, Bill,” he said. “I’ve earned the right.”

“This is where you fire me,” Penny said. She opened the envelope delicately and removed the check. The amount was eight hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Her eyes stared at the thin slip of paper.

“She’s gonna burn a hole in it,” I said.

“You can keep that and cash it,” Nat said, “or you can give it right back to Bill, keep that key of mine, and start worrying about who is going to replace you and become your secretary. Or rather, yours and his.” He hooked a thumb at me.

She looked across the desk at me. “How much is half the practice worth?” she asked me.

I laughed. “Spoken like a true accountant and financial consultant.” I leaned back in my chair and interlaced my fingers over my head. “Worth a hell of a lot more than twice eight-fifty.”

Penny handed the envelope back to me. “Then I suppose we’ll need to start interviewing applicants.”

I stood up and extended my hand.

“Welcome to Travis & Taylor,” I said. She stood slowly, then took my hand and shook it. And then she started crying.

Nat stood. She let go of my hand and threw her arms around his neck, her face disappearing from view. Nat grinned at me and patted her back.

When she released him, she stood and wiped the tears from her eyes, then slowly handed the check back to me.

“Go ahead and re-deposit it in the practice account. And make an appointment at the bank. You’re to be signatory to that account from now on, so consider that you just paid yourself back.”

“Who’s idea was this?”

“All three of us,” I said. “Nat, me, and Julie as well.”

“I wish she were here.”

“Don’t worry,” I said. “She made me promise to give her the play-by-play tonight.”

“I don’t know what to say,” she said.

I laughed. “There’s a first time for everything.”

“I’ll try to be a good partner for you, Mr. Travis.”

“Penny, now that it’s official, you are required to call me Bill. I won’t have a partner who can’t say my name.”

“Mr. Bierstone calls you William.”

“He can get away with it because he’s older than I am, he’s the former Lieutenant Governor of Texas, and worse than that, he’s Julie’s uncle.” I grinned at her. “You can’t.”

“Okay, Bill,” she said. And you could have knocked me over with a feather.

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Here’s the Author’s Note for The Lone Star Express, which is well underway. For some reason, I have to write these things the minute they start talking, with only minor changes prior to publication. Anyway, here it is:

AUTHOR’S NOTE

Following on the heels of Mexico Fever—and having been conceived during the writing of it—The Lone Star Express, like all the books, was titled a very long time ago. That doesn’t mean that it hasn’t remained fresh in my mind. From a point very early on, I could clearly see—as is depicted on the cover—Bill Travis walking along a stretch of railroad track and into the desert hardpan, his coat tucked under his arm, the wind tousling his hair, and nothing but miles stretching before him. My own question (and in my mind, there’s always at least one question, and typically more than one) was this: is the train ahead of him or behind? If it’s ahead of him, he’ll never catch up to it. If it’s behind, then maybe all he’ll have to do its get to the next required water stop or switch-track, and wait. Thus, the story as you find it here. With nothing more in mind than this mental image and the title, I began in earnest, and it all unfolded rather quickly.

This book is sort of an end in itself. No, it’s decidedly not the end of the Bill Travis Mysteries by any stretch of the imagination. It is, however, a commencement of sorts. As with any ending, there are new beginnings. Time doesn’t stop because we stop, even though one might argue that all things are relative. They may be, but there is far more to life than one’s own universe—there’s everybody else’s universe as well, and then there’s the one where we all meet and interact, and there, decidedly, if in fact not all things are relative, they’re at least related.

In this book several things speak to my little commencement theory. Penny finally comes into her own, and Nat, while not exactly exiting the stage, withdraws somewhat from the floodlights. Dick Sawyer is finally laid to rest—and we can only assume that he has actually found that rest he was looking for—and another Governor has come to the fore. Jessica has married and moved out, but I hope you do know that we will see her again—she’s simply too good not to write. Also, here, the last Travis kid is introduced, if in no other way than by foreshadowing what’s to come. (By way of a hint, from the beginning of this series, I wanted Bill’s family somewhat reflective of that of Charlie Chan.)

This is, by far, the longest of the Bill Travis books. It had to be, just as Mexico Fever had to be the shortest. It’s the story that determines that, not the author, and any writer worth his or her salt will confirm that fact. As I’ve held all along, I’m simply the reporter—Bill’s hanger-on journalist, his biographer. And one of these days I suspect he’s going to turn around, fix me with a cold stare, and let me know in no uncertain terms that I’m no longer welcome to hang around. When that happens, I’ll light out for the territories and make a whole new batch of friends. And maybe even an enemy or two.

As I stated a long time ago—along about Capitol Offense, of which this book is the decided sequel—you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. All this by way of saying that nothing is truly sacred. Before this series is done, we’re liable to see some folks we thought were stable, fall by the wayside. While Austin seems to be Bill’s home, there is, indeed, a rather large state out there beyond the Travis County line. Bill and company might move. It’s entirely possible. Anything can happen.

You see, this is life we’re dealing with here. It’s at least my life. And those of you who have participated, either by reading or through direct contact with me—I’m totally approachable, folks, so email me anytime, and you’re liable to get a phone call if you supply your number—know full well that things have a way of happening. Life is a river, and you can’t dip your foot into the same river twice. And old English prof of mine was fond of using that analogy, but with the English language in place of “life.” By the time you have removed your foot from the waters and immersed them again, it’s a different river. The water has changed and moved on downstream, fish have eaten other fish, thus cutting off whole bloodlines in the unending protoplasmic contest for imminence. It’s simply not the same. Life is like that. It isn’t static because it can’t be and still be considered life. Thus, those edifices we thought were fixed are invariably toppled, and new buildings and statues erected. Yesterday’s hero is tomorrow’s villain. What was all the rage is quickly forgotten in the windstorm of change. The seasons can be unkind.

Sorry, was waxing poetic there.

So, Bill Travis.

Bill and I are older now, that much is obvious. He doesn’t say nearly as much as he used to, but I feel like his waters have more depth, and sometimes those depths are dark indeed. (For instance, Bill actually shoots someone in Mexico Fever, as you well know. Let me tell you, that surprised the hell out of me, for sure! And gosh! What happens here gives me chills.) I can’t tell you much about my own waters, other than that things seem simpler to me now. But, when you strip away all the arbitraries and all the complexities (and you can easily read into that, all the things that aren’t important, especially the lies) a whole new world can open up, and it’s just as bright as it was when we were young and it was summer, and a day lasted a mere shadow shy of forever.

By way of final word, let’s talk about trains.

One of my earliest memories was of a train ride either on or to the Alabama-Coushatta Indian Reservation in deep East Texas. I couldn’t have been more than about three or four years old. There I met my first cousins (my father’s brother’s kids. And as an aside, one of those two brothers later became the Chief of the tribe!) and spent a day immersed in their culture. I loved it, but mostly I loved the train ride. Since that time I have had a fascination with trains, but no real outlet for that interest. I simply haven’t had the time to delve into it. Oh, I wanted to, but, you see, there’s this thing called “life,” and man, it can get in the way of quite a lot! So, here I am, nearly fifty years after the fact, and I find myself having come full circle back to that long, wonderfully slow train ride through the Big Thicket. If there is a heaven, then there is a passenger train running through it, and on to undiscovered lands. Either there must be, or there is no such thing as heaven.

So, trains. As in all things, I never knew one nth the amount I wanted to. And consequently, some of my favorite books and movies have been about trains: The Great Train Robbery, Runaway Train, Throw Momma From the Train, Von Ryan’s Express, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and the ubiquitous Murder on the Orient Express, to name a few.

With the publication of The Lone Star Express, I feel as though I may have painted myself into a rather lovely corner. While I hope it’s my absolute best, it makes the next book an even greater challenge. But then again, what would life be if there weren’t a few prominent obstacles along the path, huh?

In any case, be looking for Trinity Trio, the next Bill Travis installment, in the coming months, followed quickly by Buffalo Bayou Blues. How’s that for titles?

I suppose that’s it, for now. I hope to see you soon. In the meantime…

All my best to you and yours.

George Wier
Austin, Texas
June 9, 2016