Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Part Two, Chapter Twelve

The sun had barely risen over the horizon when Donovan stumbled in the door, reeling with drink and exhaustion. He was hungry, rumpled and dirty, but his pockets were heavy. He leaned against the door and murmured a prayer of thanks to his personal gambling deities. As an afterthought, he added a silent, fervent hope that Carina hadn't noticed his absence. Moving slowly so his pockets wouldn't jingle, he peeked inside the bedroom door. She lay with her back to him, seemingly asleep, but as he tried to think how he would get undressed and climb into bed without waking her, she rolled over and opened her eyes. From the cool way she appraised him, it was obvious she had been awake for awhile.

"Where have you been?"


"I can't believe you'd go carousing when—"

"No, Carina. It wasn't like that."

She sat up and pulled the folds of the blanket around her. "What else is one to think when a man stays out all night?"

"I had things to do."

"In the middle of the night in a strange town?" She reached for the new black dressing robe lying across the chair by her bed. "That sounds like whores, cards and drinking to me."

"Not whores," Donovan assured her. "Absolutely not whores."

"So just cards and drinking."

"Yes." When she still looked unconvinced, he sat on his unused bed. "We were out of money. I had to get us some more."

"By playing cards."

"You know that's how I get my money."

"I thought you just stole."

"Thanks a lot."

"So you don't steal?"

"Not always. Okay, I picked a couple pockets, too. But most of the money I won."

"Won honestly?"


Carina stalked into the bathroom where she splashed some water on her face, then she went back into the bedroom and dug in her bag for the makeup Amalia had insisted on packing. "Did Alvi go with you?"

"No. Don’t say anything to him, because he worries himself to death over you. He'll want to know why I didn't ask him to stay with you."

She examined her makeup kit as if rouging her cheeks and applying mascara was an overwhelming chore. "We don't need these kinds of entanglements, Donovan. How did we manage to run out of money already, with Alvi paying for so much?"

"I don't think you realize how expensive those clothes were. And then there's this room and quartering the animals...yes, Alvi has been helping, but I don't feel comfortable with the way he tries to buy everything.”

"Why not?"

"A man has his pride." Donovan went into the bathroom to wash up. The cold water felt good on his face, but he would need hot water for shaving. Maybe there was some place he could go for a shave before they had to be at the base. He should've asked Alvi about that. Maybe one of the vendors he had seen setting up coffee by the cab stand would know. "I'm going downstairs. Do you want anything?"

Carina looked up from toying with a lipstick. "No. I'll make us some coffee, though."

"I'll buy us some."

"I thought money was a problem."

Exasperated, Donovan began pulling things out of his pockets and laying them on the bed in front of her: gold, silver, federal bills and coins, ration books, and a man's gold ring. "I can afford to buy you a cup of coffee, Carina."

She sucked in her breath. "This is so wrong. Why do you do it?"

"How else am I supposed to get money? Should I have hauled my share of this year's crops to town and tried to sell them? I couldn't have done it even if I wanted to. They don't need our stuff. They've got the ranches and the train."

"But it's heartless to steal, and we've got other resources. I'm going to get a settlement today. It won't be much, and it'll be in federal scrip, but..."

"That's your money."

"I can pay you back for the clothes, at least."

"Some of that came from your money anyway, or don't you remember? No, I guess you don't. You weren’t paying much attention when Amalia and I tried to figure out what we would need for this trip." Donovan gathered his money. "But I wouldn't let you pay, anyway. Sometimes a man likes to buy things for a pretty woman."

Carina peeked into her compact mirror. "I'm not pretty this morning."

"You are to me." He said the words without thinking, and their eyes met. Donovan looked away first. He grabbed a handful of federal coins and shoved them in his pocket. "I'm going to get some breakfast." He had his hand on the door when Carina called his name.

"If you still want to buy me a cup of coffee," she said, "I’d like that very much."


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Part Two, Chapter Eleven

Donovan sat on the striped sofa flipping through a deck of cards by the light of a solar lantern. It was after nine and the electricity had been turned off, but he didn't care. He wasn't used to so much bright light, anyway. With practiced ease, he laid out a game of Klondike. After a few hands he went to the bedroom door. Carina appeared to be sleeping. That was good. He had contemplated giving her one of Amalia's tranquilizing drinks, but Alvi had been so emphatic about the dangers of allowing her to have such a concoction after so much champagne that he abandoned the idea. Now he had to wait until he was certain she wouldn't hear the sound of the door opening and closing. This was no time for an impulsive move, and he needed to be sure she would sleep deeply enough not to wake and wonder where he had gone.

He switched off the lantern, waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness, then walked to the balcony. The lights in Alvi's wagon still shone. Didn't it just figure he was an insomniac? Donovan couldn't escape the feeling that the location of their room, right where Alvi could see it, was no accident. He wouldn't approve of Donovan leaving Carina alone, even if she was asleep, but there was no way around it. They were out of money and he was tired of Alvi paying for everything. Where did he get all that money? Spying must be lucrative. There were probably ample opportunities for blackmail.

Donovan sat down again, but he had to leave soon. He had already made a mental map of how he would get to the cab stand without being seen from the campground. If only he could be certain that Carina was really asleep and Alvi wasn't wandering the grounds, looking for people to pump for interesting information. Donovan stretched out on the sofa and closed his eyes.

Suddenly he sat up. How long had it been? He hurried to the window and glanced toward the gypsy wagon. No change. Back to the bedroom. No change there, either. He wished he knew what time it was, but he sensed he couldn't wait much longer. He patted his pockets to make sure he had the last of his money on him, then he checked his papers. All was in order.

He slipped out the door and down the hallway to a staircase at the far end of the building. At the ground level, he shut the door softly behind him and looked around. He was standing in a sparse field with a long row of stables in the distance at the end a dirt path. That was where their animals were, if he wanted to get one. But no, it was easier to hire, even though it meant spending money. The driver would know where to take him, and maybe he could talk the boy into giving him the "special" rate.

He walked around the far side of the building, making a long circuit before coming up behind the last cab in the queue. He knew he couldn't ask this boy to take him anywhere because they went out strictly in the order they had arrived, but that didn't mean he couldn't catch the next driver before he pulled in. When he saw an impossibly young Hispano boy come around the corner driving a bay hitched to a two-wheeled gig of old auto parts, he ran over. "Where can I find a poker game, son?"

The boy yanked on the reins. "You looking for directions or you looking for a ride?"

"I was kind of hoping you'd take me. That is, unless you’re looking forward to waiting in the dispatch line tonight."

The boy cast a morose look at the line of hacks and rickshaws waiting for customers. "I don't make no money sitting in line."

"And I don't win money standing here talking." Donovan reached for the door. "Have we got a deal?"

"Claro. I know just the place."


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Part Two, Chapter Ten

By the time they reached the dessert course, Carina was drunk. At first Alvi had cajoled her into laughter with his stories, but by the time she gave up picking at her steak and polenta, her mood had darkened dangerously. All around her were brightly dressed military wives, hanging on the arms of their officer husbands. It should've been her. Not that she had ever wanted Miles in the military to begin with, but since they had forced him to go and made him a captain in deference to his status as a doctor, it seemed unjust she had never had the opportunity to enjoy the perks before they shipped him off, never to return. How was it that these ladies got to wear pretty dresses, dine in restaurants and keep their far less worthy husbands at their sides while hers had been killed in some far-away place? It wasn't fair, and drink emboldened her to say so.

“All of life is unfair,” Alvi said. “These people will get what’s coming to them. Time is running out. Very soon they will envy you.”

Carina scoffed. “For what? For my intimate acquaintance with alfalfa, seed stock, and manure?”

“Quite likely, yes.”

She took another look at the room full of soft, well-fed townies, and shook her head. “No, these squeamish mercenaries would rather die than live any other way than this.”

“They probably will die.” Alvi motioned the waiter over. “Coffee and brandy, and something chocolate for all of us. Do you have mousse tonight?”

“No, sir, but we have pot du crème.”

“That will be fine.”

Carina remained immersed in sullen thoughts. “We left city life so long ago. My parents convinced us everything was falling apart and there was no time to lose. But there are places where things have carried on anyway.” She looked from Alvi to Donovan, challenging them for an explanation. "I could’ve been living like this all along.”

Alvi shook his head. “Carina, this place is hardly typical. Do you know anything of the history of this town?” When he got only a vague answer in reply, he went on. “This place was nothing when there was oil. How many highways come here? One, and it’s not even an interstate. Corporate farming and petroleum-based transportation nearly eradicated it prior to the crash. It came back to life only because of the railroad and because droughts in better ranch lands made this valley profitable. This is all new wealth, and there's little enough of it, if you were to see the rest of the town. The success they've had here couldn’t have been predicted. And when the trains stop coming, as they will very soon, the people who have come to count on small luxuries like a night on the town once in a while and electricity for a few hours each day, will suffer the same fate as the people of Catalunia, the people who died in the Macrina riots, and the people who Donovan grew up with.”
“You don’t know that.”

“Yes, I do know that.”


“I have sources."

Carina raised an eyebrow. “You do seem to know an awful lot for a peddler.”

Their dessert arrived before Alvi had to answer. Carina tasted hers as cautiously as she had everything else, but there the resemblance to the rest of her recent eating habits ended. Donovan smiled. “I think we know how to get you to eat.”

She pushed the little bowl away, stammering about chocolate and childhood memories, then buried herself in her brandy snifter.

Donovan looked at her askance. “We should probably think about getting back to the motel. We have to be up early.”

Carina, whose mood had lightened over dessert, became angry again. “Oh yes, the homecoming ceremony. They can’t just kill a man and let his wife collect what’s left, but they have to make it into some sort of pseudo-religious, patriotic bullshit thing with the corpse as a hostage for your good behavior.”

Alvi motioned for the waiter to bring the check. “It’s just their way of trying to honor the sacrifices you both made.”

Carina leaned toward him. “I don’t want to hear another fucking thing about my sacrifices. I’m not a brave war widow, Miles was not a hero and there is no honor in any of this shit.”

Both men stared in shocked silence. Donovan reacted first, jumping to his feet and adjusting Carina’s wrap around her shoulders. “Let’s get you back to the motel.”

“You think I’m drunk, don’t you?” She snatched the edge of her new velvet cloak out of his hand. “You know I'm speaking the truth.”

By now some people at the next table were looking at her. “It’s okay,” she told them. “I’m just the bereaved widow of one of our gallant heroes. Nothing to see here.”

Donovan grabbed her by the elbow and steered her toward the door. “Let’s go outside.”

“Why? Are you embarrassed by me?”

The words were offered rhetorically, but Donovan squeezed her arm. “Yes, you are embarrassing me. And Alvi. And yourself.”

Such a direct answer startled her long enough for him to get her out the door while Alvi remained behind to settle up with the waiter. Outside, the cool autumn air brought Carina back to her senses. There were a number of hacks waiting for fares, but Donovan guided her to the dim circle of light beneath a solar-charged streetlamp.

Carina took a deep breath of the cold air and buried her face against Donovan’s chest. “I should’ve stayed home. You and Amalia were right. I can’t handle this.”

Donovan wrapped his arms around her. “Don’t let these hypocrites get to you. You’re stronger than you think.”

“No I’m not.” Her voice was muffled by Donovan’s jacket. “I can’t. I just—“

He pulled her closer and kissed the top of her head. Had she looked up at him for even a moment he would’ve kissed her lips and whispered all the words of love he wanted to say, but just at that moment Alvi came hurrying out of the restaurant. Donovan took a step back. “Alvi and I are going to take you back to the motel, all right? You need to rest. That’s why you’re behaving like this. You’re exhausted.”

Carina nodded and dabbed her eyes with the edge of her cloak. Then she let herself be guided to a waiting cab, where she leaned back in the upholstered seat, turned her face away and closed her eyes. By the time the horse trotted up to the motel, she was asleep.


Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Part Two, Chapter Nine

Alvi took Donovan and Carina to dinner at an old hotel on the town plaza, a great overdone edifice of granite archways and heavy oak doors. It was a place favored by town leaders, railway officials and a few local ranchers whose government contracts had liberated them of the need for frugality.

It was also popular with military officers. It seemed everywhere Donovan looked he saw men in brass and stripes. Had it not been that many of them knew Alvi and came over to shake hands and wish them a pleasant evening, he would've been so nervous he would've given himself away by fleeing. With a stern effort of will, he followed Alvi and Carina to a pleasant corner table and frowned over the menu, trying to make out at least one familiar word.

"The steaks are very good here," Alvi said, covering for Donovan's difficulties. "There are several big ranches nearby. The boys on base are supposed to make sure all the best stock ends up on trains to the larger bases and cities, but somehow the good citizens of Jonasville get tender porterhouse steaks and our boys at the front get stringy remnants in dented tins."

"I think I remember having that for dinner a few times," Donovan said. He put the menu aside. "I'll have whatever you recommend, since you obviously know what's good."

When the waiter came by, Alvi ordered a bottle of champagne and steaks for all three of them. Afterward he noticed Carina pouting. "I’m sorry dear, but you had already read everything on the menu and still hadn't made up your mind."

"I don't know what I want," she said petulantly, playing with one of the cuffs of her new black dress. "It all sounds like it would be good, but then I think about having to eat it..."

"That's why I chose for you.”

Their champagne arrived and Carina surprised both men by the vicious determination with which she attacked it, downing her first glass even before their appetizers arrived. Donovan frowned but didn't say a word as Alvi refilled her glass and turned a friendly smile on a paunchy, uniformed man who had wandered over to their table with his wife on his arm.

"Good to see you here tonight, Alvi."

Alvi jumped to his feet and pumped the man's hand enthusiastically. “Even more of a pleasure to see you, Major.” He beamed at the pretty brunette in pink spangles and leaned over to kiss her cheek. "What a lovely rose you are tonight, Claire. Keeping your man in line, I hope?"

"I'm trying." Her eyes darted toward Donovan and Carina, and Alvi made hasty introductions. Carina sucked in her breath when the woman made the common assumption that anyone in black was in mourning and gave her a stylized peck on the cheek, murmuring, "You have my utmost sympathy, dear."

Luckily their stay was short. "An acquaintance from base," Alvi apologized after the couple had gone to their table.

"How do you know them?" Carina asked. "They don't look like the type to spend much time on muddy farms, in need of huaraches."

"I have business dealings with them, nonetheless."

Carina was unconvinced, but before she could say anything, their appetizers of roasted nopalitos and local cheese and chiles arrived. She looked at her plate in dismay, but forced herself to take a bite.

"It's good, darling, isn't it? You must eat it all."

Donovan squeezed her hand under the table. "Eat as much as you can."

Carina frowned and was about to quiz Alvi again about his friends in high places when a mariachi trio appeared at their table. The leader blasted his trumpet and all hope of discussion was lost.