Chapter 1

This story takes place in late July, and in August, of 2007

It was nearly the end of July and the anticipation was nearly unbearable. In just a few days we'd take off for our annual vacation to Lanfair Valley – to the place where I'd lived from the time I was five till I graduated from high school. I'd sort of lived there even after I graduated. I'd moved in with my girlfriend in Needles, but I'd go back out to the place in Lanfair Valley, and sometimes sleep in the shed that had been the bedroom for me and my two cousins. Tony and Anna – my uncle and aunt who raised me – thoroughly disapproved of the life I was living then, but they never turned me away. They'd always loved me as a nephew, rather than as they loved their own children – but they did love me. Nowadays my family and I always – always – spend August there, for it was in August that Cecelia and I took our first trip there, and while there conceived Darlia.

But the eagerness to get there is always fierce. There are two places we always go – the desert in August, and Leanna, Alabama sometime during the year. That's to visit Cecelia's family – her parents still live in Leanna, and her brother and sister live not far away, and we have a real live reunion when we're there. And whenever we're getting near time to leave, we get antsy and eager and the days are too long, and each week seems to last a year.

On this particular Tuesday I was conferring over lunch at Fuddrucker's with a man who said he could sell me a good used industrial sewing machine at a good price. I'm a private investigator, and I know how to check things out, and the prices he was quoting were good – but not the best I'd heard. On the other hand the best prices I'd heard were for machines which I suspected were junk. I wouldn't buy one of that guy's sewing machines unless I located someone who knew about such things, and took her – probably her, given traditional American divisions of labor – with me to look at the things.

The guy I was buying lunch for struck me as being no more given to exaggerating the merits of his stock than any other salesman. I'd called the Chamber of Commerce and the Better Business Bureau and they gave him a good report, and asking some of his colleagues in the business had led me to think he was as good a guy to buy from as any.

We were at the Fuddrucker's on I-25, which is across the freeway from the building where I have my office. You can nearly throw a rock from one to the other, but getting from one to the other is only marginally less complicated than launching the space shuttle. But there are times when to me it's worth the hassle and aggravation to get there, because there isn't any better hamburger joint on earth.

I took a bite of my burger while Wally – that was his name, the only person named Wally I'd ever met – finished listing the features of the machine he wanted to sell me. While I chewed he lifted his bun and looked at what he had. It struck me as being a bit behind the times, since he'd already been eating on it, but far be it from me to offend the man who just might enable me to give my wife a wonderful gift. I am no diplomat, but I'm a little less stupid than I used to be.

Wally put his burger back together and lifted it. Looking at me he said, "You know, if you'd let your wife in on this you could make the decision easier."

"Yeah, I know," I said, swallowing. "But then it wouldn't be a surprise."

"Women like surprises," he told me. "I know. Twenny-eight years I been married." He spoke with something of an accent, sort of New York, sort of stereotypical Jewish, though his last name was McNamara – all I could be sure of was that he was from back east somewhere ... but then to me "back east" means anything east of California. "Helen, she wants a surprise every now an' then. An' I like to give 'em to her – keep her happy, you know? Twenny-eight years, you learn how to make it work."

"Well, I ain't done 28 years yet," I said with a smile, "but I'm working on it. We had our twelfth anniversary back in April, so we're nearly halfway there."

"I can't remember my twelfth, too long ago. But I remember our anniversary every year – every year I remember. Our anniversary, an' her birthday. You can't forget those if you're gonna make her happy."

I laughed. "I couldn't forget those if I wanted to. They're more important to me than my own birthday." I was enjoying Wally, who underneath his salesman's slickness seemed to be a real person. All too often people who go into sales build a façade they hide behind, and after a while they start leaving the façade up when they're off duty. And I really hate talking to plastic people. But Wally wasn't plastic, or at least he wasn't all plastic. His love for his wife seemed as genuine as my love for Cecelia.

"Well, I gotta work at it, but I remember 'em." He took a bite of his burger, and chewed it. "So you gonna buy this beauty?"

I dithered mentally. I'd gotten better prices, and I didn't know what half the features were and didn't understand the rest, but Wally was a good salesman and seemed to know his stuff, and I was enjoying him. I came to a decision. "Sure. I'll take it. Is a check okay?"

"I'm not used to personal checks, since I mostly sell to small businesses, with sometimes a big business that just needs to replace a few machines. But I checked your credit. You could probably buy me out and not miss the money. I'll take your check." And he reached across the table.

I put my burger down and reached, and we shook. "I don't have my checkbook with me," I told him. "But after we eat you can come back to my office and I'll write it out. You know about delivery, right?"

"Absolutely. If I deliver it before August 15th you'll skin me alive, and I call this Rudy ... Dalgado, before I deliver."

"Delgado," I said, "but yeah, that's right. He'll be watching the house while we're on vacation, and I'll let him know you're gonna call."

"Must be a good friend."

"He's been my best friend for 13, 14 years now. I'd trust him with my money, my life, and my wife."

"You don't get many friends like that in a lifetime. Two, three, maybe four or five if you're lucky. But when you find a friend like that, lucky ain't the word for it."

"Well, I don't believe in luck, but I won't argue with you. I've had a few friends, and a couple or three like that, and they're great blessings."

"I know what you mean." He finished his burger – he'd been inhaling it while we talked, and I hadn't even noticed. "You 'bout done there, Mr. Carpenter?"

I realized my own burger was just a couple of bites now. I chomped them down. "Yeah, I'm ready. You wanna follow me?"

He checked his watch. "Yeah, I better. Once I get the check I gotta get back to the office."

"Coolness. I'm in the black Blazer out there – the one that's got about 327 pounds of dirt on it."

He looked, and laughed, and we got up from the table and went.

I'd cleared down my calendar, and wasn't taking any cases until I got back. That's one of the good things about being filthy rich – I only work when I want to. And when I do work, I only take the cases I want to. I almost never touch divorce cases, and I don't do murder, and even the kinds of cases I usually handle – bail skips, missing people, serving papers, background checks, like that – I only take if I feel like it. There aren't many rich PIs, for it's not a gig that brings in the big bucks. But I had saved money to start my own deal way back in the 80s in Oklahoma, and then I'd come into a bit of money when my aunt and uncle who'd raised me died, and then I'd managed to make money with some investments instead of lose it, and then I'd met Cecelia and turned my money over to her.

Since that was what she did for a living at the time, it seemed like a smart move, and it was. A year and a half ago, more or less, she'd come to me while I was working on a case involving a teacher at Darlia's school, and told me that she was scared – we were getting too rich. Since then she's simply kept our money in equilibrium, not shrinking much and not growing much. We give hunks of it away here and there, and she replenishes that, but otherwise we're out of the money making business.

And that's fine with me. We've got enough that we could continue living as we do, long trips and all, for many years before either of us would have to go to work and make a living. And if it comes to it we both know about hard work. I've dug ditches and punched cattle and shifted freight and been a cop and any number of other difficult and sometimes dangerous and usually dirty and sweaty jobs. And Cecelia grew up on a sharecrop farm in Alabama, chopping and picking cotton with her parents and her brother and sister, trying to break even and maybe, just maybe, have enough left over for the kids to get a present at Christmas. We know about brutally hard work.

But we don't have to do it. I got a Coke out of the refrigerator after Wally had taken the check and left, and cocked my boots up on the scarred corner of my desk, and looked out the window. I have the office I do because I love looking at the Sandia Mountains. I drink Coke because I love it – though just then I was a bit irritated at the Coca-Cola company. Earlier in the year they'd brought back my beloved vanilla Coke for about 15 minutes, and then pulled it out of circulation again, and I didn't even have black cherry vanilla Coke as a substitute. If they ever bring vanilla Coke back for a third run I'm going to buy cases of it everywhere I can, and stash it here and there, so that when they discontinue it I won't go immediately into withdrawal.

So I looked out the window at the Sandias, and watched the cloud shadows floating across the bare granite of their western face. I thought, as I'd thought before, of Yeats' words in "The Second Coming," where he wrote of "A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun." He wasn't speaking about the Sandia Mountains, but when the sun shines on that craggy face out of the west, it is blank and it is pitiless, and the mountains look like the bones of the world, bare to everyone's sight.

I like William Butler Yeats – or I like his poetry anyway. He was 26 years dead when I was born, and probably he never got anywhere near Hawthorne, the California city I was born in. But it was partly his poetry that got me writing, and while I'm nowhere near as famous as Yeats, and probably never will be, I've self-published two or three chapbooks and a small press here in Albuquerque has published a couple, and they've sold a bit. My poetry hasn't made me rich, or even covered the house payment – before I helped Cecelia pay off the mortgage – but I can turn to that section of my book case in my study at home and see the spines of my books, and know that while Yeats was greater and more famous than I'll ever be, he and I have a thing in common.

I write poetry too.

They don't bloom often or for long
They nestle in spines and thorns and can hurt you if you reach too carelessly

They endure hot sun and dry wind and fall after such a short life
But the flowers of the desert are the most beautiful on earth

It is, perhaps, their endurance and toughness that lends them such beauty
They glow in the sun as though God's light were within them

And the sight of them makes the angels weep
She is a desert flower

Many see nothing in her
Others see nothing attractive in her

But when the angels see her, they envy me,
for she walks beside me.

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Story tagged with:
Romance / Crime / Religion / Western / Detective /