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By Jay Brandon
Wings PressCopyright © 2009 Wings Press
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The Unexpected Guest
Everyone who was anyone came to the funeral, including at least one who didn't exist. Jerome Grohman had been a fairly young man, only 50, well-known and almost universally liked in San Antonio. After a reckless youth, he had settled down to become a civic leader with certain wayward tendencies – a sort of leaning pillar of the community – and in both aspects of his life he had made friends.
Furthermore, the Grohman family went back in San Antonio history almost as far as the city did. The Grohmans had been prominent in ranching, manufacturing and brewing, the latter of which had added to the family's fortune and to Jerry Grohman's early tendency toward carefree wildness – a quality he unfortunately had retained, as his sad death behind the wheel of his Porsche seemed to demonstrate.
Before the big public funeral came the very private viewing for the Grohman family. This served as a time of farewell and also as a dress rehearsal for the funeral, to make sure everything displayed well.
A cousin had suggested burying Jerry in the full epauletted and plumed regalia he had worn as King Antonio five years earlier. This suggestion was vetoed so resoundinglhy that the cousin almost found himself written out of several wills. Not only would such an outfit seem unnecessarily symbolic, it would be tacky. And in the Grohman family, taste ruled.
Jerry's mother, family matriarch Madeleine "Miz Maddie" Grohman, had planned the viewing quietly but thoroughly, making sure only family knew of it. That was why everyone was surprised by the appearance of the young woman in the deep maroon dress.
The woman, early 20s in age, appeared to be Hispanic, with black hair that fell in a smooth sheen to her shoulders, creamy brown skin and an aquiline nose showing off Indian heritage. She had a gift for silence and another for grace, standing at the back of the quiet downtown chapel that had opened this afternoon only for the family. The young woman did nothing to call attention to herself except stand and wear the dark red dress. She could have been taken for an apparition, a spirit of meditation.
Miz Maddie (the title persisted though she was now in her 70s) glanced that way, wondered how the girl had gotten in and whether she was lost, then returned her attention to the figure of her late son. The next time she looked back, the young woman had gone.
The large public funeral the next day at the downtown First Presbyterian Church – known as First Prez among the city's old elite as well as its rising wealthy – filled the church with the well-off and well-known. Ranking members were Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, an old family friend, Congressmen Lamar Smith and Charlie González, state legislators including Jeff Wentworth, Mayor Howard Peak (a high school classmate of the deceased) and a majority of the City Council. People murmured at the brief appearance of Tommy Lee Jones, who viewed the body then quickly departed.
In this illustrious crowd, why was Madeleine Grohman's eye drawn to the young woman in the maroon dress? Somehow she stood out. Now, the young lady came forward with measured stride, stood for a long minute at the open casket, and reached briefly into it.
Miz Maddie whispered instructions to a lesser member of the family, a great-niece, who sought out the young woman. The young lady inclined her head briefly and spoke softly. Half an hour later, a time filled with praise from the minister and two or threee sly references during the eulogy by an old friend of the deceased, the great-niece settled into the seat of the limousine beside Miz Maddie. The old lady seemed lost in thought so deep it might have prefaced her own passing. But after a minute she looked up, raised her eyebrow and asked a question.
The niece cleared her throat. "She said she had promised him she'd wear a red dress to his funeral."
"Indeed." The old lady's voice was surprisingly deep, and heavy with the tears she would not shed in public or even in the presence of other family. "Well done, Bridget. She sounds like an interesting young lady. Why don't you invite her for tea? At the small house."
The Grohman family had been wealthy in San Antonio for generations. In that time, they had acquired much in the way of property, and notoriously disliked letting go of any of it.
The family now owned several houses. The matriarch of the family, 74-year-old Miz Maddie, lived mainly in the Olmos Park mansion. Her late son Jerry, wild hippie that he was, had lived in King William. But the family also owned a two-bedroom gingerbread house in the cottage area of Alamo Heights. This house stayed in the family for its address, which any Grohman child could use to attend Alamo Heights schools. It also served as a guesthouse and occasionally as a poor front. Like most old-moneyed San Antonio families, the Grohmans avoided display, didn't have their names listed on monuments, and in fact preferred to have no public life at all.
So when Miz Maddie wanted to meet the mysterious young woman who had appeared at her son's funeral, she invited her to the small house.
It was a very pleasant cottage, built in the 1920s and remodeled about every other decade since, now in an open, airy style well-suited to mild February in S.A. Miz Maddie had the tea served on the back porch, resting her dignity on a white love seat well- cushioned against its wicker frame.
The young lady arrived punctually, but took some time to reach the back. Madeleine Grohman heard her happy exclamations over small items of decoration and accessorizing. When the young lady came through the door, no longer dressed in red but in a very respectable deep blue dress that showed off her collarbones, she smiled brightly.
"You had the old wineglasses brought here," she said happily. "I'm so glad. I thought they had all broken."
Miz Maddie's eyes narrowed, but she wouldn't ask the question. "Hello, my dear, thank you for coming. May I ask your name?"
"Estela Valenzuela. I'm very glad to see you, Miz Maddie."
Estela had an accent only when she said her name. In English, like so many San Antonians, she had no accent, or so many traces that they cancelled out.
"I couldn't help noticing your remarkable dress at my son's funeral," Miz Maddie began at once. "It drew my attention."
"I'm sorry." Estela blushed slightly, a neat trick that turned her brown cheeks orange. "But I promised Jerry. He said once he'd always wanted a woman in a red dress to appear at his funeral. I bought as dark a red as I could find, and it would have been letting him down not to wear red. He wanted to make people think he'd had a wild, mysterious past, I think."
And perhaps he had, his mother thought.
"I also couldn't help noticing the way you looked at him. Clearly, you weren't a stranger. Yet I've never heard of you. Tell me, how did you and Jerry know each other?"
Estela considered the question.
"I suppose you would say he was my mentor."
"Ah." Miz Maddie, in the course of her long life, had known many men who had mentored young ladies, sometimes for years and quite attentively. Some of these had been good men, who loved their children and stood beside their wives in church on Sundays. But their mentees were precious to them, too. As long as the men remained good providers and devoted to family in public, their more private relationships only very rarely occasioned divorce or murder.
In Miz Maddie's circles, such things could be taken in stride. She found herself pleased for her son. Miz Maddie had always been an absolute paragon of propriety. More than anyone knew, she had lived vicariously through her son during his wild youth. While reprimanding him and putting restrictions on his trust funds, she had smiled inwardly.
Her life had grown much duller after Jerry had gone respectable. She was glad to learn that his reformation hadn't been complete.
She smiled at the lovely young lady.
"Tell me about yourself, dear. Where are you from?"
"West," Estela said.
"Oh? Santa Fe? Colorado?"
"Farther. Much farther."
Gabe Grohman remembered that he used to love going to his grandmother's home in Olmos Park. The old two-story stone mansion had seemed as exciting as a castle, with passages to be explored, parapets offering regal vistas, and a yard full of adventure.
Now, pacing in the front parlor two weeks after his father's funeral, Gabe wondered when the drafty old house had turned so gloomy. Miz Maddie hadn't bought heavier drapes – she had the same furnishings she'd had for decades – and the maids still meticulously cleaned everything, including the windows.
Vines had crept up the outside walls, and the trees around the house had inevitably grown taller, but that didn't account for how the sense of adventure had fled.
Maybe, Gabe thought wearily, at the age of 24 he had simply grown up. Horrible thought. "I feel older than I've ever been," he said.
"That's because you are, dear," his stepmother said helpfully.
Gabe shot what would have been a withering glance at anyone paying attention, which seldom described Evelyn Grohman. Evelyn was only a dozen years older than Gabe, the same number of years she'd been married to his father. Evelyn had not exactly been a trophy wife. Marriage to her seemed to have been designed to prove that Jerry had left his wild past behind. Not that Evelyn hadn't been pretty. She certainly inspired fantasies in Gabe in his teens.
But almost immediately after the honeymoon, she'd grown a tad plump, more than a tad distracted, and very self-indulgent.
She and Gabe cordially disliked each other, the same relationship Evelyn and his father seemed to have enjoyed over their last couple of years. In the past two weeks, though, she'd cried more public tears than any other member of the family. But then, the will hadn't been read yet.
"Has either of you met that girl in the red dress?" Maddie Grohman asked. Increasingly, Gabe's 74-year-old grandmother did that, entered a room already talking, as if she had no time to waste.
"Who?" both Gabe and Evelyn asked, startled.
"Estela Valenzuela. I've just had tea with her. Delightful girl."
Quickly, Miz Maddie filled them in on her meeting with Estela. "She and Jerry knew each other. She said they met in San Francisco, though I don't see how that could be. At any rate, he was a sort of mentor to her."
"Don't get that sulky look, Gabriel. It's so unattractive. She's a lovely girl, with excellent manners. I'm going to take her to the next meeting of the Friends of the McNay."
"What?" Now Evelyn sat up and took notice. She had no
interest in any art that couldn't be worn, but still, her mother-in-law had never offered to introduce her to the Friends.
"Delightful girl," Maddie repeated, and left the room abruptly.
"This is intolerable," Gabe burst out.
"Just the word!" Evelyn agreed, coming to her feet. "The will not even read yet – I mean, your father not even cold, and Maddie bringing this stranger into the family! How do we even know she knew Jerry?"
"We don't," Gabe said angrily. "Who is this girl? What does she want?"
Evelyn poked him in the chest and said conspiratorially, "Gabe, you have to check her out."
"I intend to."
"I don't mean that."
"Neither do I. But I'll find out where she's from and what she wants. Trust me."
Outside the door, Maddie Grohman smiled. She would never hire a detective or ask prying questions herself. Even if certain personal information might be needed to protect the family from blackmail or scandal, she would have found it demeaning to dig into someone's background, become a common snoop.
Besides, it was much easier to trick one's family into doing it.CHAPTER 2
"Live at 5"
The man on the street has given way to the person in the mall, so that's where a reporter goes to gather opinions. Spot interviews quickly revealed that San Antonians greeted a new mayor's race with their usual level of informed enthusiasm:
"You're kidding. The mayor's elected?"
"Cut!" Veronica Lewis, reporter for NewsBeat6, KSAN-TV, dropped her microphone in disgust. Veronica was 27, a veteran by TV news standards. She had logged five years in Beaumont right out of Angelo State University, where she had majored in drama.
She wore a long blue blazer over a plain white blouse. Below, half-covered by the jacket, were black leotards. On screen, only the blazer would show. Viewers also wouldn't see that her running shoes needed cleaning.
"Hey, you looked good on that take, Veronica," her cameraman Bruce said helpfully. Veronica wasn't appeased.
"Isn't there anybody in this mall who has an opinion?"
She stood in front of the Gap in Rivercenter and peered both ways, hoping to see someone who looked articulate. In her earpiece, someone from the station told her they'd be coming to her live in 90 seconds.
Back at KSAN, the director in the control booth asked, "Are we ready with that live feed?"
"Better be," said the console man, flipping a switch.
On thousands of screens all over San Antonio, Veronica Lewis suddenly appeared, staring into the camera. As soon as the red light on Bruce's camera came on, the citizen Veronica had lined up for a spot interview turned and ran.
Desperately, Veronica shot out her arm and grabbed the nearest bystander. He happened to be a young man wearing an earring at the top of his ear, "short" pants that fell almost to his ankles, and a black T-shirt with red letters saying, "Don't make me get ugly with you."
"Sir, do you have a favorite candidate in the mayor's race?"
"I don't like that sleazy one."
"Uh ..." Veronica felt reluctant to name a candidate who might fit this description. "Do you mean City Councilman Heimer, or Esparza'"
"Yeah, the sleazy one with the bad hair. I'm going to vote for Mayor Peak again."
"Well, you know you can't do that?"
"Who says? You gonna tell me how to vote, lady?"
Veronica gave the camera her serious gaze. "And that's the Beat from the Street."
Back at the station, Roger, the news director, said, "Let's can this feature. It's getting on my nerves. And fire that idiot Virginia."
"Yeah, but she looks good," his male assistant said. "You know, pretty but not overboard. Like I can watch her without making my girlfriend jealous."
"Hmm," said the news director. There are intangibles in the news business. The assistant had just described exactly the kind of person who came across well on TV.
When Veronica returned, Roger called her into his office. Veronica felt the ax hovering. She had a probationary contract, which gave her the same job security as one of Blackbeard's deckhands.
"Virginia, I've tried to bring you along, give you the benefits of my experience, teach you the business ..."
In her two months at the station, Veronica had seen the news director twice.
"It's Veronica, sir."
"I know it is, but we don't have any choice."
In serious discussions, Roger didn't let himself get distracted by listening to the other person. "We need production. We're coming into a sweeps month. We've been promoting our coverage of 'Undercover Policewomen: How Far Will They Go?' and our other special features for weeks. It's time for you to give us something."
She hoped he didn't mean what she thought he meant. But he did.
"Come up with something juicy in the next two weeks, Virginia, or you're out."
Veronica Lewis refused to ask God for help. She felt quite certain that coming up with something "juicy" for sweeps month was not a project in which God would be interested. Nevertheless, she went to church Sunday morning.
Excerpted from Milagro Lane by Jay Brandon. Copyright © 2009 Wings Press. Excerpted by permission of Wings Press.
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