Posts Tagged ‘novel’

Hopping around in the book at the moment, trying to get it polished up and somewhere near finished. Here’s a little teaser scene on the bus (neither guts nor glory here):

“Ms. Althea,” I said, “We have to go back to Umstauzel.”
“Back to—?”
“The first winery.”
“Why do you want to go back there?”
Dickerson Linton, clearly three sheets to the wind, stuck his face in between ours and breathed out alcohol fumes such that it would have been dangerous to strike a match. “If Bill wants to go back to Oompahpah, I shay we…we…we leg him. And Godschpeeeed.”
“Thank you, Linton,” I said.
Ms. Althea looked over at Julie.
“Umstauzel,” she said.
“Mr. and Mrs. Parker chimed in next, in unison, “Oompahpah.”
Somewhat of a chant began at that point, “Oompahpah. Oompahpah. Oompahpah…” with a little more than half of them managing to mangle even the mangulation.
“My God, you are all the worst bunch of…nevermind. I guess it doesn’t matter to me. You all paid for this, and the other wineries are expecting us.”
“Maybe you can call whoever is next on the list and tell them there was a holdup.”
“Yeah, I can tell them the holdup was Bill Travis.”
I nodded. “You might do that.”
“Okay, people. At this point I don’t believe any of you would be able to tell one winery from the other. We’re going back to Oompahpah.”
“Umstauzel,” I corrected her.
“Whatever the hell.” She turned to go back to the front of the bus and called over her shoulder, “Mr. Travis, please give me a head count.”
I turned around to face everyone and began counting silently, stabbing the air with a finger.
Linton Dickerson started throwing random numbers at me to try to break my concentration. “Twenty-one, thirteen, forty-two…”
“Shut up, Linton,” I said.
He laughed. “This reminds me of a song.” He started singing:

Neither a borrower nor lender be
Do not forget, stay out of debt.
Think twice and take this good advice from me.
Keep watch on your sovereignteeee
There is one other thing…you ought to do.
To thine own self be true.

I finished the count, called the total back to Ms. Althea, who grunted an acknowledgment. I said to Linton, “Thank you for that rousing chorus, Mr. Dickerson. You should go on the road with that.”
The bus lurched as Ms. Althea put us in gear.
“Looks like we’re already on the frackin’ road,” he exclaimed.
Elderly Mr. Parker suddenly stood and gave us all a moderately unsober yet poetic rendition of She Walks In Beauty Like The Night, at which not a few clapped and upon which Mr. Jameson remarked “Bo-ring!” Somehow, this prompted Linton Dickerson to stand and boisterously brutalize the theme song to Gilligan’s Island.
And so it went the five miles back to Umstauzel.

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The first Chapter of Reveille In Red, Bill Travis #16, coming soon. I’m such a tease.
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 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 perfectly 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 every year, 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 for the sale of 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 the envelope Constance had handed me, 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 her 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.
*****
I went home.
 I live in a commune, or so it seems. The garage—converted into a spare bedroom several years back—was where my old friend and client lived. Hank’s old Ford pickup was parked out front, so I knew he was home. Inside, I had two little kids chasing each other around in the squashed circle of hallways and doorways that comprised the path through the kitchen, the front hallway, the living room and the dining room and back again to the kitchen. It was Michelle and Claudia. In the living room, Jessica sat on the couch, rocking the baby in her arms—my new youngest, Bill Jr. My oldest natural daughter, Jennifer, sat at the dining room table doing her homework in an effort to get it out of the way so that she could do anything she wanted with her weekend. Julie was in the kitchen, cooking. I came up behind her, put my arms around her, and kissed her on the cheek.
 “What did you do?” she asked.
 “What? Can’t a guy be affectionate to the love of his life?”
 “He can, if he has ulterior motives. Do you want to chop some onions?”
 “I’d rather walk on broken glass,” I said.
 “That can be arranged.”
 Michelle flew past me, followed quickly by a giggling Claudia.
 “In this house, nothing surprises me.”
 “So,” she said, and put the lid back on the pot she’d been stirring. Whatever it was, it smelled good. “What’d you do?”
 “Oh, nothing. Just, I got a couple of tickets for a tour for two of wine country.”
 “Napa Valley?” she asked, incredulous.
 “No. Not that wine country. Our wine country.”
 “What, exactly, is our wine country?”
 “Oh. Fredericksberg, Trantor’s Crossing, Center Point, Luckenbach.”
 “Hmph.”
 I held the envelope out in front of her, between her and the cook pot. She took it from my hands.
 “What’s the catch?”
 I thought about it. She turned around and kissed me, then looked deeply into my eyes.
 “Tell me,” she said.
 “I…there’s this thing.”
 “What thing?”
 “Somebody was killed—possibly it was murder—at one of the wineries we’ll be touring.”
 “And you have to go and poke around.”
 “I don’t have to do anything. I just thought—”
 “You thought you could do several things at once: one, keep me happy, and two, keep yourself happy by stirring up trouble.”
 “Something like that,” I admitted.
 “When do we go?” she asked.
 At that instant, Claudia slammed into the back of my knee head first. I very nearly went down to the floor, but Julie saved me in time.
 Claudia giggled, pulled herself up and resumed the chase.
 “Not soon enough,” I said.

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Coming soon! Here’s the Author’s Note:

 

AUTHOR’S NOTE

I’m a bit of a tea-todler these days. That is to say, actually, that I am now a tea-todler. There was once a time—way back in the way back—when I was a professional drinker. I was never an alcoholic, I just really liked to drink—and it didn’t matter what it was, so much: beer, whiskey, wine, kahlua…anything alcoholic was my favorite drink. Then, one day in my late thirties, I was done with it, having grown abjectly bored with the whole thing. Since that time, I have learned to appreciate fine drinks in very small quantities, because, like our friend Bill—not the other Bill, not the AA Bill—I prefer to have my wits about me at all times.

I simply wanted to dispense with all that from the get-go—I’m no stranger to strong drink, and in quantity. My friends of very long standing can attest to that fact. That, for “drinking.”

Which brings us now to wine. More books have been written about wines and grapes, about the “wine country” (of various nations), about wine and food, about the history of wine, etc, than perhaps any other subject. I mean, wine has been with us since forever. Ancient Egypt, Chaldea, Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa, Norway, China, and even the Americas all had their wines. All you have do is conduct an online search on the subject and a wealth of information springs forth at your fingertips. But no, I’ve not been interested in any of those things, those elements incidental to the subject of wine and drinking. Instead, I’m fascinated with the culture of wine, or possibly the sub-culture. And no matter your persuasion—pro or con, wine-drinker or not—you have to admit, there is indeed a culture of wine. It’s out there, brothers and sisters. All you have to do is get some books on the subject and litter your coffee table with them, then start appearing at private and semi-public events and bring along a bottle or two (with a cork, as opposed to a twist-off cap) and share it all liberally, and sooner or later you will find yourself in deep in conversation with an adherent. And wine afficionados are adherents, by any definition of the term. I kid you not.

Factually, I was first introduced to wine and wine-drinkers this lifetime at a fairly formative age, when my father took me wild grape-picking with him. My father knew a lot of people in the countryside around our tiny and insular little town, and he would quickly figure out who had wild grapes growing on their place that they couldn’t bother with. Normally he’d strike a deal with them: he would pick a bushel or two of grapes—and I would help him—and give them half or a third of them, whatever the bargain was, or he would take them home and make wine and jelly with them, and give them a portion of the harvest afterwards. What a wonderful trade! Therefore, we had homemade wine at our house, and we had neighbors and “friends” who liked to drink it and get plumb dang sloshed. And that, to these young eyes, was something to behold. Adults, no less, acting like little children. Consequently, I know exactly how to make homemade wine. I don’t have to consult a recipe book. I was rooted to the spot, watching the whole ritual unfold in the deft hands of my father, who while possibly wasn’t a High Priest, he was nonetheless an adherent of a different ilk: he liked to make wine to share with other people. I rarely witnessed him drinking his own vintage.

Thus, my first introduction to the culture. And notice, if you please, the root of that word, culture.

So, wine.

That day, long ago, when I sat down to title out this series, I came up with the title Reveille In Red not having even the vaguest idea that it would be about wine. That’s the confession part of this little author’s note. No sir, it was just the title, the color red (at that time more like an elegant lady’s evening gown red than the color of wine) and a certain amount of tension in my guts.

Here’s another thing: I am probably the world’s “guiltiest” fellow. That is to say that I feel responsible for not only everything I’ve myself done, but everything that goes on around me. Truth be told, I feel somewhat responsible for what’s going on in Southeast Asia, in Washington D.C., and on some random back street in Brooklyn. I mean, after all, if something’s not right, then somebody should have or should be doing something about it. And if somebody else isn’t, then why didn’t I? So while it’s probably easy for the casual reader to pass off statements such as “a certain amount of tension in my guts,” let me tell you that I’ve never known a complete absence of that tension. I’ve never, this lifetime, felt “free and easy.” Oh yes, I’ve had plenty of moments of intense enjoyment, times of laughter, and I do, factually, sleep. But the tension, the irksome stick-poked sore spot in my belly, always returns. I learned to live with it long ago. I suppose it’s a part of me, so don’t worry none for me or my health on that score. The reason that I bring this up is that Bill’s readers are used to seeing the evidence of this in what he thinks, in how he reacts, in what he says and what he doesn’t say. I just wanted you to get the genus of that, straight from the horse’s mouth. It’s not the writer “being literary” and trying to “create tension.” Good God, no. I’d rather write about a peaceful journey through a mountain valley somewhere. No, this is my method of putting the demons at bay. For expiating some of my essential guilt. You see, I’m starting to see that Bill is the guy I should have been had I lived life the way I’ve always known that I “should,” not the way I have or even am. And this is also my way of turning something “bad” into something a little more healthy. On an even more personal level, I try to do that in most situations.

Yes, like Bill I’ve had my share of fist fights. Like Bill, I’ve had people screaming at me, people threatening me, people betraying me, and people running around trying fiercely to do me in one way or another. No matter how I handled each of those situations, I attempted at every turn to learn from them.

What’s the old saying? You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. Sometimes you have to be the bad guy, or at least act it. Sometimes you have to disappoint people. You have to do the right thing, not the expected thing. I’m by no means a Solomon, to say the least. But there’s that guilty feeling again: why aren’t things going well everywhere around me, not just this minute, but every minute? What did I do that I shouldn’t have? Or worse, what the hell didn’t I do that I should? I think you see what I mean.

Just a little insight into old Bill, there. I hope you didn’t mind.

All right, so we’re coming down to the last of the planned titles, aren’t we? Let’s see, what’s up next? I see only two remaining titles in the original lineup, prior to the prequels. Those of you who follow me on Twitter and Facebook—and hey, if you aren’t, why aren’t you? Huh?—know that I have been slinging new titles around recently. So here’s the tentative lineup going into the future, starting from this one:

#16 Reveille In Red
#17 Bexar County Line
#18 The Long Goodnight
#19 Amarillo Waltz
#20 Double Ought Buck
#21 Murder On the Llano Estacado
#22 Wolf Country (prequel)
#23 Manhunt (prequel)
#24 Borderline (prequel)
#25 Leaving Extreme (short story anthology)

So, for right now, that’s pretty much it. It gives me a little more runway down there for this big, slow, lumbering airfoil to get off the ground. I always told myself that if I could complete this series, why, then I’d know something about writing. Here’s the last confession, then: I’m nowhere close to where I should be. And that, my friends, is all on me. Just like Southeast Asia and D.C. and Brooklyn.

As a final word, I want say something to you, personally. Not anyone else, just you. So you bought my book—either you downloaded it on a kindle or some other device, or you’ve bought a paperback copy somewhere, and now you’ve got it in your hands. That’s a one-way flow. It’s me outflowing to you. My words are going into your universe, like old radio skips coming in a clear night. It’s not a two-way flow (although I’ll never for a minute discount that fact that you’ve spent your hard-earned dough buying my book. No sirree, ma’am!) Apart from your initial downlay to purchase it, there’s little coming back. Now don’t worry, this is not a plea for a review, because frankly, I’ve never asked for those. In fact, I regularly admonish my writer friends when I find them doing so. This is, however, a request that you (you, personally) try, somehow, to balance that flow. My experiences are rich enough to write about for only one reason—I’ve met tens of thousands of people in my lifetime, and I consider almost all of those beneficial experiences. That is to say that what I’m missing in my life is you. So please, email me (email me at texaswier at gmail dot com) or friend me on Facebook (anyone can look at the George Wier–Author page without friending me, but it requires you requesting my friendship directly on my personal FB page. Before you do, message me and say, “Bill sent me.” I’ll understand). At the very least, if you have a membership, follow me on Twitter. And say something. I’m practically begging here. I happen to know for a fact that there are hundreds of you die-hard fans out there, if not thousands. It’s time for you to come in from the rain. The place is warm, the table is set, and there’s a chair, waiting for you.

Continuing this thought, and by way of illustration, in The Lone Star Express there’s this point where a funeral director is called out to open a casket and examine a body. Anybody remember his name? Maybe not, but I do. His name is Bob Thomas. Bob is, in fact, a real person. He’s the Funeral Director at Hammon’s Funeral Home in Littlefield, Texas. He’s a huge Bill Travis fan, and now he’s one of my best friends. He was thrilled that I name him in the book. Point of fact, I do know that most of you won’t want your name in one of my books. But a few of you? Ha ha! I can’t wait to put you here.

All this by way of saying that I do read your emails, I do respond. And I do want to hear from you. Some folks have trouble articulating what they want to say to someone like me, but let me assure you, once you get to know me you’ll find that I’m easy to be around. I’m, in fact, safe. You and I have something in common, and it’s not just Bill. It’s a way of looking at things. And that’s what’s important; important enough for me to remind you.

Okay, that’s pretty much it.

Y’all take care, now.

And all the best to you and yours.

George Wier
August 1, 2017

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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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Another little snippet from Neptune’s Forge:

The expedition party came off of the ice shelf and onto land with no fanfare. If anything, the way was more difficult, being mostly uphill, and the dogs slipped and the sleds had a tendency to slue and skid. Right away, Gleese could see the genius of Ned’s selections of the dogs, and particularly the leaders. At the front of Ned’s and Tomaroff’s own sled ran Anja and Freja, two of the largest dogs among the many, both females and of even temperament. Pulling his own sled, in the lead were Ole and Svend, two male black and white huskies. Behind them were Mads, Margreth, Lisbeth and Frans, all Danish names, selected by the only Dane in the party, Ned Kroones. In the final analysis, they were all Ned’s dogs, even though technically, Gleese was the owner. Beside Gleese rode the stoic American, Terry Rath. Behind them were Peter Bornik, another American from the deep south, and Parker Dunlevy, an Irishman, who spoke incessantly about nothing at all.

Gleese kept expecting trouble between Rath and Bornik, the two having come from opposing sides in the Civil War, but they seemed fine with one another’s presence.

Rath had been in the Drum & Bugle Corp attached to William Tecumseh Sherman’s XV Corp under U.S. Grant at Vicksburg. He had lived through the initial battle and was there for the long siege, though he had only been a lad of eight at the time. He loved and respected Grant very nearly as much as he loathed Sherman, whom he considered to be the only man he had ever met who was born without a heart.

Bornik, for his part, had been one of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalrymen after Forrest was stripped of his hardened veterans by General Braxton Bragg in 1862. Forrest had been forced to sign up two thousand new recruits, and had hand-picked the rail-thin will-o-the-wisp from the southern Louisiana canebrakes. Not that he could afford to be choosy about it. Bornik served alongside the brash and fiery-tempered Southern Cavalry Major from then up to that fateful day in 1865 when the then Major General Forrest bade farewell to his troops after the CSA’s surrender by General Lee in the drawing room of Wilmer McClean at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. During those three years he had been wounded twice and had three mounts shot out from under him. There had been no replacement horses, however, in the final days of the war, and so he was forced to make his way back to Houma, Louisiana, with his bare feet, his carbine and his cavalry saber, and the clothes on his back. Peter Bornik looked almost ancient, even though he was no more than forty. The years had been unkind to him. His skin was as red as an Indian’s, and it seemed that every inch of him bore one kind of scar or another. It was a wonder he was sound in his mind and members. There were few who had seen more action who were not missing a digit, or a whole hand, leg or arm. After the war, Bornik had spent most of the intervening years as a shrimp fisherman in the Gulf of Mexico. Then, one fine summer day, he decided he’d had enough of the blazing tropical sun and came north. Gleese had found the man on the New London docks, looking for work, took one look at his ropy frame and hired him on the spot.

It was Rath, though, who spoke first concerning the disposition of Mateo. “You left it to those Island men to mete out justice?”

Gleese turned to look back toward the last sled to see old Mateo straining to catch up with it. The Argentinians had put him afoot. They would not trust him in their midst.

“He’ll not last long, I suspect,” Gleese stated. It was a true answer to the question, but then again, he didn’t care to answer the query. “And they’re not Island men. They’re Portuguese, from Argentina.”

“What were they doing on the island, then?” Rath asked.

“Looking for work. Whaling and sealing, I’d say, mostly.”

Rath shook his head slowly, and lapsed into silence. It didn’t last long, because after a minute, he said, “You had to pay them handsomely, didn’t you?”

“Mr. Rath, your wages are between you and me. The matter of their wages is between them and me.”

“I’m only trying to figure why they would come, is all.”

“Some men will walk through the gates of hell for money.”

Terry Rath then remembered his fellow Union soldiers who had accepted payment for another man’s conscription, and shivered.

“You’re from Maine, aren’t you?” Gleese asked him.

“I am,” Rath replied.

“It makes sense.”

“What makes sense?”

“I have never met anyone from Maine that wasn’t attempting to puzzle something out.”

“I’m not sure how to take that,” Rath said.

Gleese nodded, and let it go.

By the time they topped a rise and saw the distant Trans-Antarctic Range, Mateo was nowhere to be seen anywhere behind them.

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.

Just a little bit on this Antarctic story:

CHAPTER TWO: THE SHELF

The Antarctic
September 16, 1888

The Invincible lay at anchor before the blue and white cliffs. The first rope, attached to Gomez’s harpoon, was fired up and over the ice shelf by the twelve-pounder prow cannon—which equipment was the last vestige of her fighting past, but which the navy could not easily remove from the prow emplacement before her auction—and the breathless spectacle of watching Manuel Ortega shinny up the rope with three other rope bundles and an additional forty pounds of steel spikes bound about his form made for the single-most riveting moment for the passengers and crew during their brief voyage from The Falklands, apart from the bloody taking of the narwhal the previous day. If the harpoon, embedded somewhere above in the implacable ice, were to give way, then Ortega’s fifty-foot climb would be his last, this everyone knew.

When he disappeared over the cliff’s edge, a cheer went up.

“Hurrah! Ortega!”

“Mr. Gleese,” Captain Kuralt stated, “you and your men may now disembark, and with my compliments.”

“Thank you, Captain,” Gleese said, and shook the Captain’s hand. No wind blew here beneath the cliffs of ice, and as the cheering about them ceased a silence stole like death across the deck as the men returned to their work.

The cargo hold was thrown open and the supplies were hoisted forth.

Mr. Kroones—Gleese’s Danish dogman—led the pack up from the stern stairs and onto the deck. The pack was composed of a mix of grey Huskies, white Lapps, and black Alsatians—and it was a marvel that Kroones somehow kept them all from tearing one another to pieces. At night the man sang them to sleep, his melodious and nearly falsetto voice reverberating off the interior of the hold as if he were in some grand Opera house. Kroones waved to Gleese and Gleese nodded. Kroones and the dogs would be first up onto the ice after Ortega.

“You’ve marked the coordinates well, then, Captain?” Gleese asked.

“Yes. Hmph. We’ll see you here on December fifteenth, sixty-nine degrees, fifty-fourth minutes, forty-nine seconds south by sixty degrees, twenty-nine minutes, fifty-five seconds west. And Godspeed, Mr. Gleese.”

“Godspeed, Captain. I shall reach the pole and return.”

Kuralt nodded, but did not speak further. He had meant to say, “See that you do,” but he could not bring himself to tempt the Fates, or otherwise put voice what he felt in his chest—a disquieting foreboding, much like the coming onset of some malady that might prove a challenge to the doctor, if not to the clinging hand of life itself. Instead, he turned his eyes from the already tired explorer, placed his hand on the railing and gazed down upon the men at work.

*****

Twenty-five men and forty dogs watched as the Invincible belched steam. Her whistle blew a shrill goodbye as two sets of men who had been intimately intermingled for the past week waved to each other across the Antarctic air.

“Let’s move a bit towards land, shall we?” Gleese stated. “I wish to be away from these cliffs before we make camp for the night. Mr. Tomaroff, how far off is the land mass, would you say?”

“Fifty kilometres, no less,” Micail Tomaroff said. Tomaroff opened his pocket watch, then glanced up at the southern stars, as if confirming his calculations—a nod to the seemingly arcane science of celestial navigation. The sun was on the horizon, and would not quite disappear below it for several months to come, or at least not until the Antarctic fall, which would commence sometime in February, long after they were scheduled to depart this desolate and forbidding land.

“Very good. Mr. Kroones, please prepare the sleds for travel.”

“Sehr gut, Herr Gleese.”

Danish, Russian, Spanish and Portuguese were four languages that Gleese had not learned, or at least not well enough to carry on a conversation beyond an exchange of idiotic pleasantry. He could read Latin, some Greek, Gaelic, Chinese and Nipponese, and could speak some pidgin of the two Asian dialects—which was necessary in the far away Arctic—but English was his native language. While the language of Tennyson, if not of Chaucer and Mallory, was his favorite reading, he was forever mentally tethered to the American dialect of New England; that of Washington Irving and Thoreau, of Thomas Paine if not Thomas Jefferson, was how he best thought. That few of his own expeditionary party could converse with him intelligently could ultimately prove costly if luck refused to hold, as Kuralt had pointed out to him when the Argentinians had signed on en masse, lured as they were by the legendary weight of Gleese’s purse. He had largely and single-handedly depopulated the Falklands of male Argentinians, and all for filthy lucre. Some might die during the expedition, particularly if they did not heed the regulations—no wandering away from camp solo, even to relieve themselves, and not without rope.

The most dangerous foe, if it were not the ice and the wind itself, was the stealthiest, most hidden quarry imaginable; that of crevasse. He had personally witnessed a man swallowed whole by an opening in the ice that had not existed a moment before. Swallowed so utterly and completely that it was as if the man had never existed. And it did so even more abruptly than a cry could escape the lips.

No. He would not allow this to be. He resolved to spend a portion of time each evening learning Portuguese, Danish and Russian.

 

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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.