Monthly Archives: January 2017

293. The Last Man on the Moon

600px-nasa_apollo_17_lunar_roving_vehicleOn one side is cynicism.

On the other, political correctness, a stiff upper lip, wearing your game face, or whatever is the most current version of refusing to acknowledge defeat or failure even while it is kicking your ass.

Somewhere in between is the truth.

I’ve been reading astronaut biographies for the last decade. You don’t really understand the American space program that made my youth so exciting until you have seen the same events through many different – sometimes sharply disagreeing – viewpoints. All of the biographies have been in that truthful middle ground, but some suffered from too much emotional distance and some from too much optimism. They all share bitterness at some contractors whose spacecraft were substandard, and ultimately deadly.

Of all these biographies, two stand out, Grissom’s Gemini (see 87. Gemini) and Cernan’s The Last Man on the Moon. I have long planned a post on Cernan’s book, but the timing of his death caught me tangled up in other matters and delayed it these last two weeks.

Cernan flew on Gemini 9, Apollo 10, and Apollo 17. He flew within 10 miles of the lunar surface, without landing on May 22, 1969. He landed the Apollo 17 craft three and a half years later, on December 11, 1972. When he stepped back aboard for the final time, he became the last man to walk on the moon, making the title of his memoir inevitable.

Unlike Glenn, Shepard, and Armstrong, Cernan didn’t become a household name, but he should have.

Cernan’s first flight was Gemini 9. Their first task was rendezvous and docking, which had been a pain in NASA’s side. Gemini 6 had been scrubbed when it docking target failed, and had flown later, using Gemini 7 as a rendezvous target, but without docking. Then Gemini 8 achieved rendezvous and docking with a subsequent Agena, only to be nearly torn apart by a thruster failure in the Gemini. Only Neil Armstrong’s skill saved the day.

When Cernan and Stafford on Gemini 9 rendezvoused with their Agena target vehicle they found that the shroud covering the docking target had only partially retracted. Docking was once again impossible. They succeeded in making three separate rendezvouses then set out to perform an ambitious EVA, or, as Cernan titled chapter 13 of his book, “The Spacewalk From Hell”.

I’ll save that story for later, when I give a full post of the trials of early spacewalks.

Three years later Stafford and Cernan were together again, along with John Young, on Apollo 10. When I taught the space program to eighth graders, I called this the most frustrating mission in the history of exploration. Leaving Young in the Command Module, Stafford and Cernan took their Lunar Lander down to about ten miles above the moon’s surface, did not land, and returned to lunar orbit to rendezvous with Young and return to Earth. Aside from de Sade level cruelty, it all seems so pointless from our perspective.

Of course, it was neither cruel nor pointless. It was necessary to calibrate the instruments which would calculate the vectors necessary to land accurately. It would be impossible to overemphasize how crude instruments were in 1969. Even with the help of Apollo 10, Apollo 11 did not land exactly where it was supposed to and nearly crashed in a rubble field.

By one number Stafford and Cernan missed being first on the moon. Stafford did not fly another mission until the Apollo-Soyusz mission of 1975. Cernan became commander of Apollo 17 which, because of funding cuts, became the last Apollo flight to land on the moon.

Back in Indiana, Purdue University holds bragging rights to having produced the first (Armstrong) and last (Cernan) astronauts to land on the moon.

Raven’s Run 87

“Jeeze, you don’t know a lot.”

“Today I don’t know as much as I knew yesterday. Anyway, one story is that the P. I. turned in a report saying this person was clean, when he wasn’t. When he or she wasn’t. Then went out and sold the truth to a heavy, and later on tried to up the ante and got killed. The name I was given for the heavy is Adrian Brock, Sacramento contractor and distributor on the side for local pot farmers. But the person who gave me that name is a liar who tried to have me killed, so it’s probably a blind alley. The rest of the story comes from a reliable source, Raven Cabral herself.”

“Did you say ‘tried to have you killed’?” Joe asked mildly.

“Last night.”

“Didn’t succeed?”

“I’m not much in the mood for jokes this morning, Joe.”

“Sorry, Son. I thought when you left me that you were giving up the profession?”

“This one fell into my lap. If I told you how it all began, you just wouldn’t believe it. What I want is for you to find out how much of this is true, and follow any side issues that come up. I’m up to my ass in alligators and I don’t even know the name of the swamp. But I can’t pay you.”

“Consider it a favor. I owe you a couple. I can tell you part of the story right off. Harvey Jacks is a P. I. out of San Francisco. Was, I mean. They pulled him out of the bay about six months ago. The sharks had been at him, but he never felt it because there was a 9 mm. hole in the back of his head. He wasn’t any more honest than he had to be. A blackmail scam would be right up his alley, and getting in over his head would match his intelligence. Not too bright.”

“Thanks, Joe. Keep the file close at hand and expect another collect call.”

“Give me a couple of days, Boy. The investigation I can afford, but these overseas calls are going to break me.”

I hung up and closed my eyes. There have been few men in my life who have meant much to me, but Joe Dias was one. When I was going to college in San Francisco and I didn’t have any skills to sell but a strong body and an ability with weapons, Joe Dias had taken me under his wing. In a profession noted for sleaze and dishonesty, Joe Dias was a gentleman. I had run errands, questioned people, and done stakeouts, squeezing them in between classes. Occasionally I had found myself in the thick of some heavy action. Joe had called me three-quarters of a P. I.

I stayed with it several years because it was good money for the hours, and because of Joe. And, I had a knack for it. But I had wanted a wider world and a better class of associates.

I called Marseille and waited for Will to come to the phone.

“Ian?” Will was breathless, “Am I glad to hear from you. Every piece of fecal matter in the universe has hit the fan.”

My heart stopped. I thought Davis’ body had been connected to me. more tomorrow

292. I’m back

dscn5448I’m back.

It’s been a weird month. Every two years my wife and I organize her guild’s quilt show. It’s a big deal and the amount of detail work is massive, but I won’t give any details. This is a blog about A Writing Life, not about the personal, private, non-writing life that sometimes jumps in with both feet. I did put in a photo of some of the quilts from the show as a teaser.

Things are progressing with Cyan, and I’ve been working hard to keep everything moving smoothly. One of the side effects of the excess of non-writing obligations is that I haven’t been able to work as unhurriedly on Cyan as I would prefer. I hate deadlines, and I am living in the middle of a snarl of them.

On January fifth I saw the first “rough” draft of Cyan’s cover. Excellent, exciting, and it looks like it will sell some books. That is of first importance. As much as we authors complain when covers are inaccurate, a naked female that sells books is always better than an accurate depiction that leaves books unsold.

By the way, this cover is not a naked female. It is a Cyl – and a rather well envisioned one at that – in a desert landscape looking up a the landing craft from the Darwin. It will all make sense when you read the book.

In the “rough” draft – which was slick, professional, and not rough at all – the Cyl was looking down toward stage left and there was no landing craft. On the more finished version I saw next, the Cyl had turned his head slightly left to look at the landing craft.

So what? So this was done by a skilled digital artist, using a high-end illustration program. You couldn’t turn the head of such a sophisticated image in a painting without starting from scratch. I know a little about this. I have been using graphics programs almost daily since the late eighties, making drawings of things I was about to build in the woodshop, drawing illustations for my science class, and designing dozens of oddball musical instruments and hundreds of quilts. I never had the opportunity to work with a really high-end program, nor had the time to spend on their leaning curve, but I recognize quality when I see it.

Even though the image looks finished, there are still a few tweaks coming, so EDGE is not letting me show you yet. As soon as I can, I will.

I have also been told that although Cyan will be an ebook, it will also be available in print-on-demand format. I’ll tell you more as things progress. It looks like the full release will be about the time of Westercon. For those of you in the eastern half of the US and the rest of the world, that is July fourth weekend.

So, I’m back, ready to pick up where I left off with a diverse mix of posts. Tomorrow we’ll look at the contributions of Gene Cernan, the astronaut who died two weeks ago.

Raven’s Run 86

The bridge where Davis died was the only direct way back to the hotel and the Ferrol. The way I had to take was long and I got lost more than once. It took me an hour to reach the Rialto Bridge and cross the Grand Canal, and another hour to worm my way through the maze of streets back to the area of the train station by another route.

Susyn had fled. The concierge at the hotel said she had not checked out, but her suitcase and clothing were gone. Had she panicked when Davis did not return, or had they already planned to go separately? Did she know he was dead, and I was alive? There was no way to be sure.

I retrieved my pack and walked down to the station. My train was long since gone and there would not be another until early morning. I changed my ticket and went out of the station. It was two in the morning. The traffic on the Grand Canal had lessened, but it never ends. The steps of the station were covered with a hundred bodies, mostly rolled into sleeping bags, as the students and street wanderers bedded down for the night in the only place they could afford. I had a good room already paid for, but I chose to join them. I found a place where I could put my back against the side of a stone block and sat sleepless among them, watching. It was unlikely that Susyn was still in Venice, and less likely that Skinny Alan was here, but there was no way I could trust my life to sleep. Nor my peace of mind to the nightmares that would be waiting in sleep.

Chapter Twenty-four

The six o’clock train carried me to Milan. I wasted five dollars in lira before I found an English speaking operator who would help me make a collect overseas call. After the third ring, a familiar voice said, “Dias Investigations.”

“Carmen, it’s Ian Gunn.”

“Hey, Stud, you back in San Francisco? I thought you were on your way to Europe.”

“I’m in Italy, and I’m in trouble. Put Joe on.”

“Hey, when I accepted the call, I thought you were someplace local.”

“Carmen, put Joe on.”

“He’s kind of busy.”

“Emergency, Carmen. Don’t dally.”

Less than a minute later, Joe Dias came on the line. “What’s up, Ian. Carmen said it was some kind of emergency. Who’s shooting at you?”

“No one today. Last night they were.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“Tell me about it.”

“Not on an open line. I’ll give you all the details you want later. Here’s what I need from you now. Ramona Maria Elvira Cabral, known as Raven, daughter of state senator Daniel Cabral, hired a P. I. sometime between four and eight months ago. P. I.’s name was Harvey Jacks, working out of San Francisco, I think, but he may have been out of Sacramento. I never got that part of the story quite straight. Are you getting this copied?”

“Tape recorder’s running, Son. Go as fast as you want.”

“Raven hired this guy to investigate some member of the Senator’s staff, name unknown, because she suspected some kind of crime, also unspecified.”

“Jeeze, you don’t know a lot.” more tomorrow

Raven’s Run 85

We smashed together, and I pushed him off. He still had the knife in his right hand and the gun was now in his left. He should have used the knife, but he was caught in a moment of indecisiveness – lesser weapon in the strong hand, or better weapon in the weak hand? I put a left cross into the middle of his perplexity and he staggered back. I followed him. I could run from the knife, but not from the gun. I caught his knife hand in my right and spun it up and over. Pinned it behind him. He reached up with his left hand over his right shoulder and fired blind at point blank range.

I was blinded by the flash and deafened by the sound. My cheek flamed with powder burn and some of it went into my eye. Frantic, I jerked upward with all my strength, lifting Davis off the ground by his pinned wrist. Something gave, the knife clattered to the pavement, and Davis went face first to the ground.

He rolled left and brought up the gun. I kicked out as he fired. Again I felt the burn of powder, on my leg this time. He had missed, but he still held on to the gun. I stamped downward, into his face with hard heeled hiking boots. His head hit the pavement with a sickening smack. He still kept hold of the gun. He lunged upward, straining to rise. I slammed the heel of my boot between his eyes, smashing his head back down again.

It sounded like a melon bursting.

All was silent and still. After echoes of his shots chased themselves down the street. I thought there would be cries and lights flashing on, but there was nothing.

What had happened, after all? Two gunshots. 9 mm., probably. Inside the houses of this nearly deserted section of the city, with their high, closed windows and drawn blinds, it would have been no more than two firecracker pops. Nothing to cause alarm.

Davis did not move.

I squatted beside him. His eyes were open and he stank of death. He had lost control of his bowels. He had no pulse. His head seemed to have fallen too far back on his neck, as if his head were half sunk into the pavement.

I was not about to raise that head. In imagination, I could see the rush of blood and brains that would come flushing out.

My throat locked. Later I could vomit, but not here. Not now.

I left the gun where it lay and did not touch the knife. When I ran – and I was going to run any second – I did not want to be caught with them.

His eyes were open. In the dimness, there was no color. Even the pool of blood seeping out of him was black. But I had seen those eyes, inches from my face, on the Wahini the last time we fought. They were blue, deep blue, almost violet-blue eyes. In the cheekbones and the slant of the eyebrows was the resemblance I had suspected these last few minutes. The resemblance I should have seen two weeks ago. Brother or cousin, he was some close kin to Susyn.

Someone was coming. I could hear quick footsteps in the distance. I faded into the shadows, scurried up a side street, then turned purposefully but not too fast into the night. A strange feeling filled me. I was ten feet tall, alert in every sense, ready to meet any challenge. Full to the eyes with adrenaline and alive, gloriously alive, moments after I might have died. Nothing bothered me now. Not even the sight of Davis’ dead, open eyes. Not even the black pool of blood and the stench of his dying.

That would come later. more tomorrow

Raven’s Run 84

I was searching for any angle, and conversation was all I had to work with. “That sounds like Alan,” I said. “A real sense of humor. The kind of guy who would rape a girl before throwing her over the rail.”

“If there had been time, sure. Why waste it?” A few steps later, he added, “I would have done the same myself, if there had been time.”

A cold, calculating man. The kind who could calmly talk about the opportunity to rape, and as calmly pass up a chance if it wasn’t convenient. Like I had been convenient. And wasn’t convenient now. The kind of guy who would shoot you in the back without preamble and toss you into a canal. He would not feel the need to gloat and crow, or to make you feel small before he destroyed you. No real cruelty; just a straightforward, businesslike approach to his life and your death.

A far more dangerous man than skinny Alan, despite that one’s touch of mania.

I had gained something. I knew when and how he would try to kill me. It would come swiftly, without warning, in the first place that provided convenient escape and convenient disposal of the body.

My body!

We were now among dark piazzios. There was an empty feeling to this quarter. Only a few of the upper windows showed light, and in the valley between the high buildings there was only moonless darkness. My eyes had become so accustomed that I could see the debris stacked against the walls and the garbage in the gutters. Davis was behind me now. Here would be a good place for murder. I tensed with waiting, but no indication came. There was a lightening of the gloom ahead. A small side canal was crossing our path, with a typical high-arched bridge. Someone had left a two wheeled cart standing in the road at our right side. It gave me an excuse to slide sideways and cross the bridge against the left. I could hear Davis’ shoes scuffing the pavement behind me. I thought of throwing myself from the bridge into the canal, but it was lighter here and I would be outlined against the moon-bright water when I came to the surface again.

I felt Davis close the distance between us. It was coming. My only hope was to give him an opportunity he could not resist, so that I would know the moment I had to act.

As I came to the top of the arch, I put my hand on the railing and looked left, with a slight turn of the shoulders, and an almost imperceptible pause in my forward motion. I had calculated the movement to look natural, just as anyone coming to the top of the arch would turn his attention momentarily to the view below. And I held the pose for half a second while I planted my right foot, then lunged sideways, slashing blindly with my left arm and driving back toward Davis.

A heartbeat later would have been too late. My arm was jerked sideways momentarily. I heard the tearing of cloth. The knife he had been driving toward my back caught in my left sleeve and scored the back of my upper arm as it tore free. more tomorrow

Raven’s Run 83

Chapter Twenty-three

The feel of a gun at your throat has a marvelously concentrating effect on the mental faculties. Everything suddenly became very clear. I looked from Davis to Susyn. She wouldn’t meet my eyes. I said, “Shit!” because nothing else quite seemed to fit.

Davis dug the barrel deeper into my throat and said, “Don’t make a sound.”

I looked at Susyn. “You had to make sure didn’t you? You had to be sure that I could identify them.”

“They promised to let you go if you couldn’t.”

“They knew. We were eye to eye in Marseille. Either they lied to you, or you are lying to me.”

Davis caught my arm and dragged me around. “Just shut up,” he snapped, “or I’ll dump you right here.”

I believed him. He could fire once and fade into the shadows. Susyn could tell the police that it had been a robbery attempt and give a false description. No one would know. And Susyn had done all she would for me – if she had done anything at all.

So I waited without resistance, calculating my chances. There are always chances, but right now they looked awfully slim.

Davis reached down for something he had dropped. I couldn’t make it out in the darkness, but it was a shopping bag. He draped it across his arm to hide the gun. He said, “Let me tell you how it is going to be. You and I are going to walk. I’ll have the gun on you every second. You aren’t going to get away. If you try, or if you call for help, I’ll shoot you dead. Then I’ll run, and I’ll be lost in this rat’s maze before anyone has time to finger me. Clear?”

“What do I get for cooperating?”

“You live.”

“For how long?”

“Where you are, every minute is a free gift.”

He was right. What he didn’t know was that I have been in that place before. He could read the fear in my eyes, and I made no attempt to disguise it. If anything, I tried to look more scared. Fear is good; fear is a pipeline to adrenaline, and adrenaline is power. I was scared, all right, but I was not panicked.

Like I said, I had been here before.

Susyn squeezed by behind Davis, not looking my way, and walked away into the light. I watched her go, letting the anger build inside me to augment the fear. I was going to need them both.

Davis moved his head and I went the way he had gestured. We passed the open air restaurant and headed down the street, opposite the direction Susyn had gone, toward the darker part of the city. Within five blocks there were no more restaurants and few hotels. The lights and the pedestrians were spaced farther apart.

“You really made a fool of me, didn’t you?” I said.

Davis did not answer. He had fallen slightly behind so that I could not strike back against him without turning around first.

“Did you enjoy watching me trying to find Raven for you?”

“I wasn’t there. Alan and I were looking, too.”

“Alan? Skinny guy? Your partner?”

Davis did not reply. We walked on, deeper into the darkness. Finally he said, “To me, you were convenient. Alan thought it was funny as hell.” more tomorrow