Monte Schulz is the firstborn son of Charles M. Schulz of “Peanuts” fame and Joyce Halverson. He took his Master’s Degree in American Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where he lives and owns the Santa Barbara Writers Conference.
Monte has written the following novels, all published by Fantagraphics Books, except the first:
Down by the River (Viking; 1991)
This Side of Jordan (2009)
The Last Rose of Summer (2011)
The Big Town (2012)
Crossing Eden (2016), A Novel of the Jazz Age
Undercity (the forthcoming sequel to Metropolis)
In the author’s own words, “Metropolis is a dystopian novel about a society troubled by the effects of crime, disease and social disorder. It’s also a love story, a coming-of-age novel, about a college student who’s leading an ordinary life until one day he falls in love with a beautiful bohemian revolutionary who leads him into a maze of events, a mystery involving eugenics in Metropolis, and a war occurring in distant lands that has killed millions of people over the past 60 years.”
Herewith a conversation with the author, followed by an excerpt from his novel.
After reading Monte’s novel, I had the pleasure and privilege of speaking to him from his vacation home in Hawaii. A conversation with Monte is as voluble as one of his novels; we talked for the better part of two hours. Here is a condensed and topically organized version of my discussion between Monte.
Monte is an immensely talented long-form writer. He has the ability to hold the panoply of characters, environments and events in his mind and to write free-form, without the aid of an outline or external structuring devices writers commonly utilize. He says, “For Metropolis, I made up everything, and actually the book was not hard to write. It was really easy to write. It was a full visitation from the Muses for nine months.”
Even so, Monte disciplined himself to write: “My schedule was to write a page, at least one page every morning before I ate or drank anything. Now, I could write a couple of pages or more in the afternoon, but I had to write at least that one page. And in nine months I only missed three mornings. I have never had writer’s block. Never. A page of crap is better than an empty page.”
A work of art, whether art, writing, or music, is an opportunity for a glimpse inside the creator’s thoughts and way of perceiving the world. In Monte’s Metropolis, each scene, each turn of events, is of interest; there are no flat spots. One sentence ignites another, paragraph after paragraph. The book is hard to set aside because of its inherent spontaneity of prose. Its spontaneity in both scenes and characters is that of its creator’s. Monte says, “I didn’t outline, I didn’t really have it thought out. I just didn’t. I wrote, you know? Like that.”
Monte says, “I like playing with language.” It’s evident in his remarkable ability to break away from the lazy, sedentary kinds of sentence structures we’re accustomed to reading and take us into a world that’s genuinely sensory. Often, his sentences are imbued with his love of the long form: “We emerged under a carved stone arch into a catacomb of crowded arcades lit by tinted flower lamps and Chinese lanterns, electric globes, hanging rope lights, kerosene torches, crystal candelabras, and buzzing with people in all styles of dress, drab and festive: frock coats and tailcoats and muslin skirts and cashmere shawls, woolen bonnets and leather hats, rubber trousers, worn and soiled boots, tormented collars, peasant dress, feathers and festoonery.” (70w; p 169)
Another (shorter) example from the same page: “. . . a vast tunnel network of understreets realized by banished architects demolishing miles of ancient limestone to build a reverse world inhabited by people our own great metropolis had given up on and forgotten. A web of disjointed dreams.”
“When you read this book, it’s like you found a manuscript but it sort of slipped through the veil; it’s from another world. That’s what this book is. It’s Julian’s story. He’s writing this for his people in his world, not ours.” Metropolis is a 668-page novel borne of a vast imagination and unleashed creativity, existing beyond any of the more commonplace aspects of time or setting. Once the reader accepts the absence of a known characterization, setting, even an era like one with which we are familiar, the story assumes a comfortable distinctiveness all its own. Monte recalls telling a friend about the work while it was in progress, whom he said remarked, “it was as though history bifurcated 1500 years ago and ended up here.” The story flows like a swift river, sweeping college student Julian Brehm into its currents and an adventure, even for the author.
The story is told in the first person by Julian, some years after the actual events. Monte recounts, “I had no idea what was going to happen. I just knew how the book was going to end, (although) the other harrowing event, I didn’t intend it. I didn’t want that to happen. But I realized it just had to happen.”
Of the characters, Monte says, “I think we could view Julian with a little bit of tongue in cheek; we could call him the accidental tourist. He has an unformed native consciousness, you know, but it’s coming along, he’s gaining more in depth as he and we go through the book. There are a lot of mysteries, (many) things he just doesn’t know.” As he gains new experiences and insights, Julian has thoughts like this:
“I remember embracing my fate as seed for soil, tendrils of life emerging from my brain and belly, encouraging stalks of corn and wheat and gorgeous sunflowers to grow and bloom in a newborn world. It’s how I thought of death and its purpose back then.” (p. 536)
Quite by chance Julian meets Nina, who is searching for her lost terrier named Goliath. Monte says, “Nina was a scream. Even hysterically so at times.” Julian’s journey, mostly unconscious, is triggered by meeting Nina. “Soon he has fallen in love with this girl. You know, really, you could say he was just led astray by her.” In one scene, she and Julian are about to eat Pajapiros, “sausage wraps,” (Monte has reinvented the names of everyone and everything) when Nina slaps Julian’s hand and says, “That one’s mine.” He replies, “They’re exactly the same,” But she takes his from him and says, “Can’t you tell the difference? I’m holding this one now, and you’re not. Which makes it mine!” (p. 61)
Monte says, “Nina’s just funny, but not many people like her, which I thought was amusing.” The reader meets many people, from Julian’s roommate Freddy, who has a drinking problem, to Nina’s young sister Delia (Cordelia Rose) to two undercity characters named Castor and Pollux, the enigmatic Mr. Sutro, the mystical Queen Nouille of Laomedonia, two geniues, Peter Draxler and Warren Radelfinger, the assassin Marco Grenelle, his Zynis, and so many more, heroes and villains alike, yet each a distinct and memorable character in their own right. As Monte says, “I don’t know. I like them all a lot. [But] I don’t think you can necessarily have [readers] like all your characters.”
Art or analogue?
When asked, “Do you see Metropolis being analogous with modern life?” Monte replies, “While I was writing it and reading parts to people, everybody kept telling me, ‘Oh, it’s just like now. Just like Trump.’ I’m like, okay, crystal ball, I’m not even thinking about Trump or America or whatever while I’m writing this book. “Our culture has nothing to do with this book,” he continues. “Okay, okay, but hold on. This might be the truest parallel: Julian as a college senior at Heidelberg University in 1943. It’s really a European novel. There was that danger of negative eugenics during World War II. [And there have always been dangers to civilization from viruses.]”
Different things happen to Julian (and often including Nina) in different places on their often Chthonic world. The Great Separation. The Desolation. The Hippodrome horror. The Palace Désallier. The Great Chasm and the Pilumnas River. Illium. The mystery of Lake Nouille. The undercity. All a world unto itself but not unlike our own, existing in some indeterminate time and place. Mr. Sutro says, “The sun rises in the east and sets in the west, and the story of our world lies in that cycle. We do believe that when we are hand-in-hand with you once more on the shores of the sundown sea, this life will be complete.” There are familiar themes, characterizations and events running through the story, yet Monte doesn’t consciously try to associate them with current or historical events; they remain because they are innate psychological aspects of the human creature instead. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he says. “I agree. It’s sort of latent in people. These thoughts identifying vices and virtues in our fellow humans. So I wouldn’t really think like that. It’s only after the fact that I saw thematically that it has parallels, you know, two steps from where we could go.”
He pauses, then continues. “You know, two steps from eugenics. I think it’s very dangerous, as you can see in the book. More dangerous than genocide because it can target anybody named as infected with an incurable virus they called spyreosis, a disease I invented while driving in my car, (which is interesting because I wasn’t even writing the book at that time.)” But there is no such virus. Mr. Sutro says eugenics is really just about people you hate. That’s all it was. That’s the whole thing about the infection, an excuse to exterminate those we despise.”
Wars without end.
Monte explores the depths and seemingly unlimited nature of war and its ungodly premise: “So you understand the idea of war is that one side has to kill the other. To get rid of all those people, (even if) the socio-medical identification of them is wrong.” Julian reaches the stark conclusion any rational mortal would, regardless of the war or the times: Is the responsibility “ours for a century of persecution and murderous apathy to any sort of goodness and morality? Now and then, enlightenment comes too late and we suffer the consequences of that. Sadly, this appeared to be ours.” (p.637)
The dystopian entracte.
Monte continues to allow the story to tell itself. He says, “I want to tell you something: nobody who’s read the book has talked to me about what happened in the Hippodrome. When I’ve asked why not they said, ‘Ah, it’s too horrific.’ And, of course, it is, but its mercilessness is no stranger to the peoples of our earth. “You know it’s a holocaust-level act, and yet it happened.” It was hard for him to write the scene. “I felt sad and when I read the scene over again, which I have multiple times, I wondered, ‘Why did we firebomb Hamburg and Dresden, and why did we firebomb Tokyo and dropped the atomic bombs to end [World War II]? The war ended with Germany being completely destroyed and Japan completely destroyed. Because [our leaders believed] the war was never going to end otherwise. Sometimes that’s true.”
The conclusion finds Julian, Nina and Delia (and Freddy) living a kind of Mediterranean intaglio life, having settled, after the war’s end, in a small fishing village. Three years and millions of people have passed. Monte, somewhat cryptically, says, “Aurora begets apologue:” In this world, the dawn of enlightenment has begotten a renewed desire for moral principles. It is the ending we, the readers, hope for, yet with some reservations about its permanence. Knowing this, and knowing there will be a sequel, is understandably perplexing. Yet thinking about how great a novel Metropolis is leaves little doubt about anticipating a great read with the forthcoming Undercity.
Two last thoughts on writing.
Monte says, “If Crossing Eden were the only book I ever wrote, I would be satisfied with my writing life. We hear talk of the Great American Novel. I read an essay about Thomas Wolfe and the idea of the ‘GAN’ as discussed in the 1920s, which described a book that tried the hardest to encompass most of American society. So, by that definition, a book like [F. Scott] Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby or The Corrections or Purity by Jonathan Franzen cannot possibly be a Great American Novel. They are too narrow. Therefore, it has [to have] a really big view of America. “Somewhere, somehow, American culture and society and racism and religious intolerance and all these things going on all at once [are earmarks of] big novels. (So Crossing Eden is a) 1000+ page book because it is literally three novels put together. The structure is similar to the ‘USA trilogy’ by John Dos Passos.”
Jack: Thanks for a great time speaking with you, Monte. While I await Undercity, I’ll be reading Crossing Eden. One last question: did you entitle your first novel, Down by the River, after Neil Young’s eponymous song?
“Yes, yeah, I’ll tell you why. The working title was ‘The Boxcar,’ Okay, because there are some tramps and there is a shootout and an old railyard and all that sort of thing. Just a working title. I had planned to replace it, but when my editor mentioned on the phone how he and his wife were working up a title, I thought, no way, no way, I’m going with Down by the River. I’m going to name it after Neil Young’s song because I don’t want them to title it for me. It took me, you know, ten seconds to settle on that title.”
Jack: That is so funny. I love Neil Young. I really do. Thanks again. I hope we can meet in person at the next Santa Barbara Writers Conference.
Here’s the excerpt.
WE GOT OFF THE BUS at Gosney Street, gritty and bleak, where the old grey tenement houses looked worn-out and rotted, paint peeling and porches sagging, trees mostly leafless and tired. A mangy cat lolled on the stoop next door. My clothes had gradually dried in the draft from the open bus windows and I relaxed. Somehow the Catalan didn’t seem so terrible. I even felt a bit courageous. Maybe swimming with a corpse in the cold tide at St. Etienne Shores had something to do with that. Delia seemed cheerful, hurrying off down the sidewalk to a dilapidated house in the middle of the block. That little dog in her arms, Delia rushed up the stairs and into her home, letting a hallway door slam closed behind her. She shouted to someone inside as I arrived. A moment later, beautiful Nina stood above me there in paint-speckled overalls. She smiled. “Hello, Julian.”
I said, “Do I win a prize?”
“Do you want one?”
“Of course. This was a very trying endeavor. Your little sister is a demon. She gave me an awful run. I doubt I’ll recover for weeks.”
She smiled. “Oh, I’m sure you’ll be just fine. Come in!”
I bounded up the steps behind her, light-footed and giddy. Nina held the door for me and we both went inside. Late afternoon sun splintered shadows in the narrow hall from rooms on both ends. The house was frantic with voices and music. Overhead lamps were sooty, the wood floor underfoot rubbed raw and coarse with stains, and warped here and there.
Nina gave me gentle tug. “Come meet my friends, Julian.”
She opened another door off the hall and led me into a narrow living room where a crowd of scruffy bohemian types were scattered about on a ratty sofa and worn-out chairs, smoking and having at each other in contentious debate — just as I’d imagined. Leaflets littered the carpet and the walls were plastered with political posters exhorting rebellion and contentiousness, precisely the sort of enthusiasm for youth anarchy I expected. What else, after all, besides sex, stirs adolescent blood? Defy your parents, trash the system, throw a party. I’d had such thoughts myself. Who hasn’t?
“Oh God, Nina!” some young bearded fellow with a cigarette and a peach called out from a cushioned window seat. “What’s he doing here?”
“This is my new friend Julian.”
I tried on my best friendly face, though I wasn’t sure it mattered here. Who were these people, anyhow? Anarchists? Disrupters? Bad poets?
The abrupt young fellow stood and waved his peach at me. He was dressed in a paisley vest mismatched with a white-collared-shirt and dusty-brown-trousers. As if he lived in a cellar. His hair needed a good shampoo, too. “Are you insane, Nina? Who said you could bring one of them here?”
“Oh, go flush yourself.” Nina grabbed my hand again. “He’s come to help plan my birthday party.”
A weasely little fellow with shaggy hair called out from an old armchair, “What if we don’t approve? You can’t just drag them in off the street, you know. We have rules here. Who is he, anyway?”
“He’s my friend, and if we had rules, Marco, you’d be wearing a dress.”
Two more casual fellows in ratty cardigan parked side by side on the sofa laughed, and the pretty brunette beside them wearing a lime peekaboo dress stuck her tongue out at the weasely boy. A crowd of a different sort.
Nina gave me a tug. “Come on, Julian. This party stinks. Let’s have our own. I’ll fix you a drink in my room.”
I gave the couch trio a friendly nod. “Good to meet you.”
They weren’t dressed any more presentably than their noisy pal, but at least they seemed to know better than to advertise poor manners. Understanding how to present ourselves is one of the admirable virtues.
Nina dragged me through the kitchen where another scruffy fellow strummed a mandolin over a bowl of steaming oatmeal and a girl in a flounced apron fiddled with a broken potato peeler. The sink was stacked with empty wine and beer bottles. This was the bohemian highlife, all right. Just as I’d imagined. You couldn’t see anywhere the floors or counter tops had entertained a mop or washrag in a month of Sundays. Hungry now, I snatched an overripe pear from a small porcelain bowl and followed Nina to the back of the house where her bedroom lay.
She skipped in and flopped onto a dumpy bed slid up against a wall adjacent to an open window where a flowering plant sat in a small pot and a casual array of prisms were strung like pearls across the glass. She had poster art of café scenes and bohemian authors, Pitre Kautsky and Riemer Volgin, and labor slogans plastered to the walls about a small wooden desk cluttered with books, pamphlets, leaflets, and on her mattress a week-old copy of Subterranean Oracle, that notorious guide to anarchy and political nonsense. A true socialist tableau, I thought, without saying so. The room smelled of griffo weed or Fasulian incense, I wasn’t sure which, because the brass paraphernalia for both collected on a tiny carved tea table next to her bed. A noisy radio set rang music from the next room.
“Come sit beside me, Julian,” she said, shuffling a pair of magenta-laced and sequined pillows to make space. “Let’s celebrate.”
“Will this be my reward for finding Delia’s puppy?”
“Do you want it to be? I hadn’t decided anything until you arrived. I wasn’t sure what to expect. You, being who you are after all, right?”
She laughed a bit too loudly. Probably she’d started her party without me. “You’re so stuffy, Julian! Come! Lie down. I’m so worn-out.”
“I’m not sure I trust you, darling. You’re seeming very shady. That whole missing dog routine. It was really too much. I hope you realize that. I wasn’t at all fooled. But with a less sympathetic fellow, you could find yourself in real trouble. You’re lucky you met me, and not some scoundrel.”
“Well, aren’t you just the most impressive boy.” She giggled, then drew a silver flask from under her pillow. She unscrewed the cap and sniffed. “We should wash your clothes, Julian.” She took a drink from her flask. “You look horrendous.”
“I’m not saying you stink, but I’ve just changed my mind about having you on the bed. You’d soil the sheets and I just had them cleaned this morning.”
“Oh? That seems awfully bourgeois. How did you have time with all your marching about? Those silly speeches.”
Nina stared at me as if I had a nosebleed. Then she said, “Take off your clothes, Julian.” She bounced up off the bed and shut the door. “I mean this instant. I’ll wash them myself.”
“Is that so?” She really was crazy. Did she truly expect I would undress to my drawers in front of her, right then and there?
“If you’re nervous, just pretend I’m your mother. Boys usually find that easier somehow.”
“You’re so absurd!”
“Julian, I just can’t have you rolling about on my bed in those filthy clothes. So take them off.”
“Good grief, are you deaf?” She opened the door and yelled out into the hallway, “DELIA!” She turned back to me. “The laundry room’s in the basement. Delia loves washing clothes. She’ll run them down for us. I have her completely trained.”
Nina leaned out into the hall again. “DELIA!”
I should remind you these were troubled times in our grand civilization, days of fear and worry. Nothing was inconsequential. Litter in the streets, domestic upset, pervasive mental illness and chronic disease were felt as dangerous undercurrents of moral disharmony and what Dr. Regensberger from the Porterhouse Dispensary Staff called “intellectual rabies.” Truth be told, I probably ought not to have gone to the Catalan at all that day, but when we’re young, being swept along on someone else’s tide just seems so damned exciting, and we feel strong and brilliant beyond our years, and our egos simply won’t permit any recognition of potential danger.
None of this, of course, completely explains why I stood in the middle of Nina’s bedroom stripped to union suit underwear while little Delia gathered up my creek-soiled clothing. Strolling out of the room, she wore a look of admiration that had me thoroughly defeated and it wasn’t even suppertime.
Then the doorbell rang, and the story truly began.
One of those ragged fellows from the living room shouted down the hall, “NINA!”
“Stay here,” she told me, and hurried out.
I went to the window. Traffic was thick with old autos. Fish wagons and pushcarts, too, clogging the street. Then, that verbal racket which permeated this entire floor of the house stopped so abruptly I went out into the hall just to see what happened. There was a short, stocky middle-aged fellow at the front door with a dour expression on his face speaking with that boy who’d waved the peach at me earlier. The fellow was dressed plainly, like a cab driver, with a grey cotton jacket and brown trousers and a flat work cap in his hand. I thought he might be somebody’s father. That is, until Nina arrived to begin arguing with him over someone named Peter Draxler. That’s when it became interesting enough to draw me down the hall in my union suit.
“He’s not here, mister,” Nina told the fellow. “We haven’t seen him all month.”
“Is that so? He wasn’t visiting Tuesday evening? You don’t recall that? I heard he was.”
Nina smirked like her little sister. “You’re lying. I think we’d know if he was here. He’s our friend, not yours.”
“Then you ought to know where he is.”
The boy with the peach stepped forward. “Look here, that’s none of your business. Who are you, anyhow?”
The fellow handed him a card. “This is a very serious affair. Nothing for kids to fool around with. Your young Mr. Draxler’s fallen into a questionable situation. I may be able to help, but only if I can speak with him before matters get worse. It’s entirely up to him. You should know, however, that somewhere in this city a clock is running out and when it does, young Draxler is likely to find himself swept up in very disagreeable circumstance.”
Nina told him again, “Peter’s not here.”
“I heard you, darling. Could you please tell me where I can find him?”
Another pretty girl stuck her head out from the front room. “Why don’t you just go away and leave him alone? He hasn’t done anything wrong. Why don’t you just go away?”
The fellow drew a pencil and a small notepad from his jacket. Then he said, “How about if you give me your names? I think that’s a good idea. Don’t you?”
Peach Boy told him, “How about if you just leave now? We don’t have to say anything more. We don’t know who you are, but you look like a stiff, and we’re not going to talk to you any longer. Just get out before we call the commissioners. Goodbye!”
The fellow broke a funny grin. “I like you kids. I really do. I’ll be back. Get your stories straight. And let Mr. Draxler know we’re on to him. He can’t hide.”
Nina swung the door open. “Out!”
Then, of course, all the attention fell on me, standing there alone halfway down the hall in my underwear. Laughter from Nina’s friends roared through the house. Horrified, I rushed back to her room and flopped myself onto the bed.
“Who’s Peter Draxler?” I asked Nina, when she reappeared from the hall.
“And that fellow asking about him?”
“We don’t know, and it’s better that you don’t ask. There’s been a lot of snooping about these days and we’re being careful not to talk to the wrong people. You wouldn’t know anything about this, Julian, I’m sure, because it’s no worry at all to you and your sort, but there are events occurring all over the provinces now, life and death, and my friends and I are much too involved to play dumb.”
“Don’t be condescending. I’m just curious what your business is in all of this, and why I’m here today. Couldn’t you just have hired a dogcatcher? What’s your game, Nina? Really now, what is it?”
The room felt shady and cold. The sun was diminishing. Out on the street, a roll of trucks rumbled by, rattling the unlit ivory lamp on her little desk. Nina came over and sat beside me on the bed. “Julian, you and all your silly friends live in a soap bubble. Did you know that? A flimsy glistening little orb of insubstantial beauty. You’re so convoluted in your eugenical self-absorption, it’s ridiculous to imagine you have any real idea what’s actually occurring these days. For instance, did you hear about Jakob Voorsänger?”
Then I laughed, and she looked as if she were about to slug me. But what else what I supposed to say? “Nina, are you, or are you not, going to explain why you solicited me for your little dog hunt? It’s very important that I know this before we go any further today. At least until my pants return.”
“Delia’s washing them.”
“So you say.”
“My gosh, Julian! You are so skeptical! And yet you are accepting of everything you’re told by the Council about why millions are being murdered in the Desolation. What is it with you people? Does all that money fog your brains?”
“Oh, I’m very cynical about the war. I can’t even spell ‘victory’ any longer. I just can’t seem to locate the proper letters. It’s a form of aphasia, I’m certain, induced by persistent nonsense and utter confusion.”
She stared at me for a moment, then said, “You’re right. I shouldn’t have brought you here. You’re obviously unsuitable. I apologize.”
“Unsuitable for what? You haven’t asked one thing of me since I arrived except to take off my clothes, and I feel as though I did a pretty efficient job of that, don’t you?”
“You’re an ass, Julian.”
“Do you have even the vaguest appreciation for what that man was doing here asking about Peter?”
“No, because I don’t know this Draxler. All you’ve told me is that he’s a friend of yours. Maybe that fellow was recruiting him for his own boy-friend club. How should I know? For goodness sake, Nina, if you really want me to get involved with your nefarious doings, then be brave enough to let me in on the game. It’s the least you can do.”
Then, just like that, she leaned over, grabbed my face, and kissed me flush on my lips. She had me smothered before I knew what I should do. Of course, once I caught my breath, I kissed her back. She had very soft lips and tasted of fresh bourbon. The first pleasant experience I’d had all week. When she retreated slightly, I saw those lovely eyes of hers were moist. What did that mean?
“I need to trust you, Julian,” she murmured. “I need to trust and believe in you. These are very upsetting times and I don’t like asking for help. Anyone can tell you that. I haven’t had somebody to confide in these days, so I’ve been hurrying about solving problems on my own, but now I see that’s not really possible. I have Delia to look after, and she’s been terribly difficult lately, and none of the boys care at all. And those asinine girls they’ve brought here are worse yet. Absolutely selfish little bitches. I hate them all. But they don’t know it because if they did, this house would be our own horrid desolation, and we have so much to do, you can’t possibly imagine.”
“Nina, again, I have no idea what you’re talking about. Do you? How many times do I need to ask you why I’m here? Is that so complicated? And where on earth are my clothes? Because I do need to get back to Thayer Hall. Exams, you know? Very important ones, actually. That probably doesn’t mean much to you, but believe me, my parents are very concerned.”
Nina leaped off the bed and stuck her head out into the hallway. “DELIA!”
I heard a siren close by and went to the window. The Rosenstern Quarter was notorious for rotten behavior perpetrated across all manner of human beings. Perhaps that sounds elitist, as I’ve no doubt it is, yet decency has to be counted among our common virtues. Here, in this sordid corner of the Catalan, I’d read there were more burglaries, blackmails, suicides and murders in a month than anywhere west of the holy river. Just three weeks ago, for instance, on a sunny Tuesday morning, a building inspector named Penwell put down his cup of coffee and keeled over at the breakfast table, poisoned by his young wife who’d apparently decided the beatings he administered in bed each night after conjugal relations were not sanctioned by the Holy Book, after all. Four days later, a district security administrator and two recently dismissed deputies were burned alive in a fancy auto outside the Kasbakh burlesque theater on Olivette Street. A firebomb had been placed in the motor housing, set to detonate when the engine ignited. Both incidents were named political crimes by the Protectorate’s chief investigator, though most in the metropolis decided that some sort of salacious sexual relations gone horribly awry was the more likely instigation. Yet who really was to know?
Nina invited me back to her bed where we cuddled and kissed, and she fiddled with my ear. “I thought you liked me, Julian.”
“Oh, I do admire so many things about you, dear.” I kissed her, too, again, and danced my fingers through her lovely black hair. “I just can’t for the life of me recall what they are right now. Give me another moment or two, maybe they’ll come back.”
She looked me straight in the eye. “Don’t be such an ass. It’s not flattering. This is a very serious circumstance. I hope you can appreciate it, even if you’re not entirely sympathetic with those of us who aren’t like you or your crowd.”
“Would I be more sympathetic if I wore a beret? Loan me a megaphone and I’ll join your anarchy parade. Do you have flags?”
“Don’t be an idiot, Julian.”
“Then don’t fool with me. I’m doing my very best to follow this conversation, but you’re making me work a bit harder than I’m used to.”
She leaned forward once again to kiss me, then abruptly got up off the bed and skipped over to the door where she shouted out once more into the hallway, “CORDELIA ROSE!”
Her voice echoed through the house. A moment later, I heard her little sister call back some nonsensical reply, after which Nina turned to me. “Julian, I want you to go home right now.”
“I need you to leave this instant.”
“Without my pants?”
“Delia’s bringing them up from the basement. You should meet me this Wednesday at Thibodeaux Station on the East Platform. There’s a small flower stand by the telephone gazebo. I’ll be there at two o’clock. It’s terrifically important that you arrive on time. I have something drastic to tell you. Worse than life and death.”
I could hardly disguise a smirk. “Of course it is.”
She frowned. “If you don’t believe me, then don’t come. I’ll find someone else.”
“I have no doubt.”
“Don’t be late.”