Saturday, September 3, 2016

Chapter Nine

Lucinda Rinaldi honored veterans of American wars at her home every Fourth of July. Most of the men who came were veterans of the Great War which the United States had entered in April of 1917 or like her father veterans of the Spanish American War. A few had fought in the Civil War.

She didn’t mind inviting others. Certainly the young women of Mountain Ridge were interested in attracting veterans no matter what their age. And what’s a party without dancing and flirting. There would have to be ladies at the event. Lucinda sent out invitations to any young lady interested in attending.

The town girls valued their invitations. A veteran was marriageable material because he had a pension. With the country deep in a Depression, even Lucinda’s father didn’t know how long it would be before he had to start laying workers off. Those military pensions looked very inviting to young women whose fathers and uncles and the boys they would normally consider marrying were looking for jobs. A pension was a steady income. And widows got pensions too.

Lucinda, Vonnie and Lisa had been busy for days cleaning, buying extra supplies, making salads, puddings and breads. July Fourth at the Rinaldis was to be the biggest celebration of the year in Mountain Ridge.

As the guests arrived, Lucinda and her father greeted them and offered them punch. Music streamed from the new phonograph Enrico had ordered from Detroit. Soon couples were waltzing about. Lisa and Yvonne busied themselves putting cookies out on trays and seeing that everyone had enough to eat and drink.

Ezekial Cheney arrived in his wheel chair. His nephew Dennis pushed him into the room. Ezekial, one of the few Civil War veterans still around, loved to tell tales of meeting at Campus Martius in Detroit with men from all over Michigan. Young George Armstrong Custer had been there wearing a captain’s stripes. Ezekial had served under Custer in the war. He surprised many people by calling the great Custer a coward and a fool. “If I had been with Sitting Bull, I would have shot the idiot myself,” he said.

Ezekial had even seen Abraham Lincoln once when the president visited the soldiers after a battle. Lucinda invited Dennis to help himself to the snack table and Vonnie wheeled Ezekiel over to a table and then brought him date bars, his favorite cookie, and punch.

“How about some of those pretty sugar cookies, over there?” he asked her. Vonnie hurried off to collect a plate of sugar cookies and added some chocolate heart-shaped candies. “Have you tried the ice cream yet?” she asked when she brought him the plate.

“Just a little.”

“Of course.” She quickly served him the ice cream, and as she did, her apron fell slightly away revealing her swollen belly.

“Whose the lucky guy?” he asked.

“Beg your pardon, sir.”

“Old guys like me get to ask impolite questions. Put it down to senility.’ He had noticed and she hoped he was the only one who noticed. If Mr. Rinaldi noticed, she would be fired. She scooped the ice cream on his plate in silence.

“You’re pregnant, ain’t ya?”

“She wanted to run into the kitchen. “Excuse me, sir, I must check the - something’s on the stove.”

“He gently took her arm and held her there beside him “Please stay. I didn’t mean to be rude.”

She nodded and sat beside him, still feeling uneasy.

“You’re one of the Brianka girls?”

She still didn’t answer.

“I met your brother a few times. He came to the house and helped me fix some flooring. I tried to pay him, but he wouldn’t take anything.” Ezekiel waited as if expecting her to say something. “I didn’t believe he tried to rob that gas station. If he did, they wouldn’t have given him such a short sentence.”

“Sir, I really have to go.”

“Okay, but I need someone to push me home after this here wingding is over. My nephew over there deserves a good time without this old man to push around. You come and do this old man a favor.”

“I’ll ask Miss Lucinda.”

“I ain’t trying to get dirty with you. I won’t hurt you. You send that pretty Lucinda over, and I’ll ask her myself.”

“Yes, sir.”

Emil had explored and mapped most of the tunnels. He knew Jeff Hollander had claimed to see something terrifying in the tunnels, but that Mills Olson had gone into the tunnels and found nothing in the place where the priest claimed murdered women lay strewn about.

Jeff Hollander was not the type of man to frighten easily, but Emil thought maybe he had instead found a batch of Rose’s old moonshine, and that the old brew perhaps inspired a bad dream. Whatever had spooked Jeff Hollander, had spooked Hollander good.

He put the house up for sale.

Emil made his way from a mine tunnel into Rose’s tunnels and from there right up to the house, but he didn’t want to go into the house. That would be trespassing. Somehow being in Rose’s tunnels did not qualify as trespassing. At least not to Emil’s way of thinking. After all her tunnels connected with some of the mines including the very mine that Emil worked for. Rose had trespassed when she built these tunnels. A part of Emil’s job was to see to mine safety.

He stood at the entrance that if it were not blocked and locked would lead into Rose’s house. If Rose had a fortune here, it was close by. He sensed it. She would want her fortune where she could easily get it. She might have hidden her money inside the house. Unlikely. Hollander would have found it.

Even if he were sloshed on old moonshine, Jeff Hollander would have found any treasure hidden in the house. Down here, Emil was more at home than Hollander ever would be. Emil had explored the tunnels to the right. Now he would go to the left. This led away from the mines. This was where the treasure would be hidden.

Emil noticed a recently blocked passageway. Someone had come down here recently and closed that way off. Why? Was this the section where Jeff Hollander had his nightmare? Emil moved slowly. He noticed footprints on the ground. This is near where Jeff Hollander and Miles Olson had looked for some nightmare killing ground.

He turned away from the blockage, and followed a tunnel deeper into the earth.

He turned toward a small manmade chamber that looked like a natural cave. Something metal glittered in his light. It was a rusted still. Emil backed from that chamber. He moved on.

He found another hollowed chamber. Empty. This part of the tunnel curved and twisted like a snake and lead nowhere. It dead ended.

There had to be more. He went back to the empty chamber. It was perfectly hollowed out with smooth walls. Why had it been created? Something about this one was different than the other dead ends. This was more round and more like a room. It had had a purpose. But what?

Carefully Emil examined the walls and the floor. He noticed a small indentation beneath the cave’s wall and he inserted his fingernails there. There was something hidden here. It was very hard to see in the dim light and in the black on black of shadows. He rubbed the floor, clearing away dirt until he made out a small door.

It was artfully hidden; he slowly opened the door in the cave floor.

Vonnie took Ezikeal home in Lucinda’s Rolls Royce. She hated leaving the cleanup to Lisa and to Lucinda, but Lucinda had insisted. Ezekiel as a Civil War veteran was a Mountain

Ridge treasure, and if he wanted Vonnie to take him home, then Vonnie would take him home. When they got to the farm, the ranch hand helped Ezekiel out of the car, into the wheel chair and then wheeled him up to his front porch. Instead of steps, Emil had a wooden ramp attached to his porch.

Emil pointed to the ramp. “Your brother helped my nephew build that.” Vonnie got a jug of lemonade from a picnic basket in the car and poured him a large glass. He told her where she could find ice cubes in his kitchen. She poured herself some lemonade too.

“I’m ninety-five years old,” he said when she was seated.

“My goodness,” she did some quick arithmetic, “You must have been born in 1840. Who was president then? Do you know?”

He grinned. “Martin Van Buren. That was an election year. William Henry Harrison won, but then he caught a bad cold at his inauguration, and died a month later. I was a year old and had lived under three presidents. You haven’t lived under many more presidents and you’re…”

“Eighteen,” she said. “I’ve lived under five presidents, and Franklin Roosevelt is the best.”

“He is. I liked Abe Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt a lot, but this one we got now is a good man. Did you know he’s in a wheel chair just like me?”

“I didn’t know that,” she admitted.

They lapsed into silence for a few minutes. Then he asked, “Are you going to marry the boy that got you pregnant?”

She didn’t know what to say. “Please…”

“I ain’t being nosey, and you don’t have to answer, but I’m a lonely old soul out here. I could use someone to clean the house and cook my meals. My nephew does what he can, but he’s got over 400 acres to take care of.”

Vonnie listened to his words and stared out across his yard at stalks of corn blowing gently in the breeze.

“I already deeded most of the farm off to my nephew, but I kept these five acres. I got a pension and if I had a wife, that pension would go to my wife after I die. It ain’t much, but it buys electricity and I don’t need much in store bought food. I ain’t doin’ this very well, but what I’m saying is that you got a home here if you want it.”

Tears stung Vonnie’s eyes. “I couldn’t ask you to…”

“I’m asking you.” He interrupted in a voice louder than he intended. “I’ll give your young ‘un a name and you get my pension for the rest of your life. And you get the five acres after I’m gone.”

“I couldn’t,” she repeated.

“Okay,” he accepted her answer. It had been brash of him to make such a proposal. “You know I would never have touched you.”

“No. No. Mr. Cheney, I am so honored by your offer. I thank you.” Tears streamed down her cheek. She took a handkerchief from her purse.

He let her cry; he didn’t know what else to do or say. Like many men of his generation, the sight of a crying woman was almost painful to him. But he just didn’t know what to say. His proposal had embarrassed him. But he did need someone, and he sensed that she was in trouble.

“I have no place else to go.” she said after a minute.

“He took her hand and squeezed the tiny fist still clutching a handkerchief. “You do now. And I promise you, I won’t bother you none except for some cleaning and maybe help getting around.”

Lisa stood at the edge of the woodland. She always avoided the paths that wound through the trees because the woods scared her. Vonnie said the trees formed a small city park, but Vonnie too avoided this small forest. Walking around the group of trees took Lisa out of her way, but she didn’t mind the walking.

Once she reached the other side of the woods, she stared up at Almasy House. She had been there as a very small child. Her mother’s body had been taken here. This house had something to do with what happened to her pa. Something had happened in this house and after that her parents were gone. She still had Jack and Vonnie, but their old house was gone. It was all because of this house and the scary old lady.

Where had her family lived? In one of the houses at the edge of the tree area. Was their old house still there? Would she recognize it? What did Almasy House have to do with the house where she used to live with her parents, her brother and sister?

Almasy House was empty now.

The old lady who had lived here was dead. Father Hollander who inherited the house had placed it for sale. He said he had seen something awful in the tunnels under the house. Lisa had heard much of the local gossip, and she knew the people who lived here in Mountain Ridge did not like Father Hollander anymore than she did.

Church attendance was down; a new priest from Detroit had taken over. Hollander had beaten her and Jack when they lived in the orphanage. He said it was to get the Jewishness out of her. She hated him, but he wasn’t the only one she hated.

Lisa remembered the old lady. “You must never tell what happened tonight,” the fancy lady had told Lisa all those years ago. “Your daddy left town. He didn’t want to be saddled with little kids. He left. Anything else is a lie. No one will believe you if you say anything else.”

The woman had told her over and over, “You mother went to heaven, and your daddy went to China.”

A sound came from the woods and Lisa turned at the sound. Some small animal darted through the bushes. She saw a tall pine tree. These were called Norway pines. Lisa listened as sounds in the forest receded. She remembered what had happened that night. She remembered what the lady said she must never tell.

Lucinda and Brad had lunch at his hotel. He rattled on and on about the wedding plans. He listed the names of the invited. More important he thought was how much people would donate to his campaign after they met his beautiful wife. Was he trying to impress her by listing the names of wealthy donors?

She knew how important this marriage was to her dad, but she had to tell Brad.

“Brad,” she began. “There’s something you need to know.”

He put his hand on top of hers. “Yes,” he smiled. “Where shall we spend our honeymoon? The Riviera? Paris? Wouldn’t it be great to sail around the world on on one of those big ocean liners? But unfortunately I have legislative duties and a campaign to run. I can’t be away that long. We may have to settle for Mackinaw Island.” He seemed very excited. Why did she suspect it was an act?

“Please,” she begged, “You must listen to me.” Then the words stuck in her throat for awhile. No, she must not be ashamed of who she was. Her family had worked hard to raise themselves out of slavery and poverty. “My grandfather was what they called a Buffalo Soldier. They were Black soldiers who…”

“I know who your grandfather was, Miss Reynolds.” he snapped. “Yes, dear. I know your family’s secret. I know your family’s name before they changed it. We will not speak of it again.”

That surprised her, but pleased her too. She had been honest. Now they could go ahead with the wedding. Her father would be happy. But would she be happy?

Emil’s two oldest daughters, Mary who had just turned 22 and Elsie who was 20, were to wed in September. They planned a double wedding. “Too bad Almasy House is closed. I always wanted to be married there,” Mary said. “It used to be such a great mansion.”

“If we could afford a mansion, why not go to a nice mansion and maybe get married on Mackinac Island.” Elsie said.

“Don’t worry about expense,” Emil told them. He rented the most expensive hall in town and paid for honeymoons in San Francisco for each couple.

“Dad, save your money. We don’t need to go to San Francisco.” Both couples had their own savings, after all.

“It’s not like we’re Lucinda Rinaldi,” Elsie added.

“I have my resources,” Emil had told them. He had never been a big spender and giving his children elegant weddings would be his one extravagance. He knew he had to be careful. No one must suspect where his money came from, not even the girls. Not yet.

He had not believed in a treasure buried in the tunnels beneath Almasy House, but he had found Rose’s secret stash, and it was much larger than he or anyone else imagined. It would make sure his family never wanted for anything again.

Emil was sitting in the kitchen of his home with his two daughters. His wife had died the year before and he still missed her, but the girls kept the kitchen spotless and looking like a picture from one of those ladies’ magazines. Mary had made the pink gingham curtains and Elsie made the matching tablecloth. A younger daughter, Alice made red potholders that somehow looked good with the pink gingham. The appliances gleamed. Mary would polish them after each use.

“One small request,” Emil had said. “Dylan will be the best man at the weddings.”

“No problem,” Both his daughters and his soon-to-be-sons-in law agreed. They all liked Dylan, the girl’s younger brother.

Emil had raised seven boys and three girls in this house that still rang with activity. His wife was gone now. The two oldest boys were off at Northern Michigan University studying engineering. Mary and Elsie would soon be off raising families of their own. The girls were talking about Dylan.

“Maybe he’ll stop mooning over Elaine Dabb”

“What’s Elaine up to lately. She was after that priest.”

“I understand he’s left town.”

“He’s still around. And she’s still living with him. He still owns Almasy House.”

“Will he reopen it?”

 Emil shut out his daughters as they talked about the big house. He was glad the priest seemed to have lost interest in the tunnels. Rumor had it he had gotten a scare down there and would not return. Emil had worried about running into the priest and being chased from the tunnels or at least the tunnels closest to the house where the priest might claim ownership.

Yet as a mining engineer Emil had some rights down below.

The girls were back to wedding plans. Flowers, dresses and honeymoons. Let the girls plan. There would be time enough later to tell them about his good fortune. He decided the two oldest girls would be his best confederates. Could he tell them and not their husbands-to-be? What about his other children?

Sonny and Miles met for a drink. Both wore their uniforms. Sonny was a Michigan State trooper and Miles was a Mountain Ridge deputy sheriff.

Their beers were cold as ice shacks and foamy like snow piles. The Ink Spots sang on the juke box.

“What’s this town coming to?” Sonny lamented. “Used to be a white man’s town.”

“Still is,” Miles assured him. “It’s gonna stay that way as long as my dad is the sheriff.”

“You get rid of those Jews yet?

“You mean the Brianka girls? I got rid of their brother.”

“He’ll be back.”

“Not if he wants to stay out of prison. Old Man Rinaldi arranged an easy sentence, but Jackie Boy has to stay out of town and away from Lucinda Rinaldi.”

“Those Rinaldis. I would’t be surprised if they ain’t got Indian or Jew or even Nigger blood in them.”

“Don’t matter what they got except money, and they got plenty of that.”

“I tell ya Jews hire other Jews. You ever see Rinaldi in a church?” Sonny gulped more beer and the foam stayed on his mouth and day-old whiskers.

“I ain’t goin’ up against Enrico Rinaldi,” Miles insisted. “He owns the biggest mine in town and he ain’t laid no one off yet. We done lost enough jobs to this here Depression. And what is Roosevelt doing about it? Nothing.”

“I’m not talking about going against Rinaldi. But those two maids of his.” Miles remembered the night they had followed that older Brianka girl from the movie theater. They had tackled her in the woods and raped her. “One of ‘em is leaving.” he said.

“Which one?”

“The older one. She’s marrying. now get this; she’s marrying Ezekiel Cheney. The guy is a hundred years old or close to it, but she’s gonna get his pension.”

Sonny swallowed his drink. “If she’s marrying old Ezekiel, she’ll be alone out there in that farm house. Easy to get to.”

Miles nodded. “You know we ain’t got a Klan here no more. None that I know of.”

“We got us,” Sonny said.

“We got another problem,” Miles sipped his beer slowly.

“You mean that priest? No one believes he saw anything. He’s too spooked to go back from what I can tell. He wouldn’t even go back in the tunnel with you.”

“We gotta fix this.” Miles insisted. “We gotta make sure he don’t say no more about bodies in those tunnels.”

“I done closed that section…”

“He’s a loose end, and we gotta deal with it.”

“Which one of us is gonna do that?”

While the Mynter girls planned their weddings, Lucinda Rinaldi allowed professionals to plan hers. She had confessed her family’s secret or tried to, but Brad already knew. She was grateful that Brad still wanted her, but she didn’t love Brad.

Surely she wasn’t the first bride in history to go to the altar without love in her heart for the man she would marry. Brad Davies needed her father’s money and her dad needed the prestige of being related to the Davies.

Her marriage would open doors for her dad.

How had Brad known about her family? Could others find out? Of course, there was always a trail no matter how hard her father had tried to cover up their Negro blood. It was there.

Brad was ambitious. He’d probably win the U.S. senate seat in November.

No one must ever know the truth about her family.

Even with her dad’s wealth and her soon-to-be husband’s old family name, she knew there was danger. And Daddy said he had seen Klansmen dressed in sheets and pillow cases right in the lobby of Almasy House. But that had been years ago. It was the time that Jack Brianka had lost his family.

Jack said that the Klan had attacked the family on the night his mother died. His father had disappeared. She wondered what really happened to Jack’s dad. Some people said he had been lynched that night. And the Briankas weren’t even black. They were Jewish; and she knew some people disliked the Jews as much as they disliked the Negros.

The Klan existed here in Mountain Ridge and probably in every community. Lucinda was scared.

Miles drove to the house where Hollander and that Elaine girl were staying. He knocked on the door, and Hollander answered.

“I got a county commissioner wants someone to take a look at the house,” Miles said. “Make sure everything is up to code.”

“House? You mean Almasy House? What does he need to do?”

“Not sure,” Miles admitted. “He wants you to meet him there tomorrow morning.”

Yvonne Brianka married Ezekial Cheney at the Mountain City Courthouse on September 23, 1935. He was ninety-six and the bride was nineteen. Present were Vonnie’s sister, Lisa, her employer Lucinda Rinaldi and the groom’s nephew, Dennis Cheney, who had to rush home to farm chores. Dennis was fifteen; his parents had died in a car accident in December and he ran a 400 plus acre farm with help from his uncle Ezekiel and a few seasonal farm hands. The mule had been retired before his parents died, and it was replaced by a new John Deere tractor. The crop that year had been a good one.

Vonnie promised to save some wedding dinner for him.

After the ceremony, the wedding group minus Dennis went back to the Rinaldi kitchen where they ate ham, mashed potatoes, buttered corn, fresh bread and apple pie.

Lucinda gave the couple one thousand dollars.

“We can’t take this. This is a fortune,” Vonnie protested.

“Please,“ Lucinda smiled. “I’m going to miss you. The two women hugged. When they had a few monuments alone, Vonnie said, “I don’t know if Lisa can handle the chores alone.”

“She’ll be fine. She’s a hard worker.”

“The nightmares might come back.”

Lucinda knew it must have been difficult for the siblings to lose their parents when they were so young. “You have to give Lisa a chance. She’s stronger than you think. She can’t grow if you and Jack keep smothering her.”

“I hope she’ll be all right.”

“I wish we had reported…,” Lucinda paused. She was one of the few people who knew Vonnie was expecting a baby. “reported what happened to you. You were raped. This. This baby isn’t your fault.”

“It doesn’t make any difference,” Vonnie said. “I want this child. Thanks to Ezekial, I won’t have to give the baby up.”

Then the couple hurried off in a taxi that would take them to the farm. They had talked over their individual needs and had an understanding. They would have separate bedrooms. Vonnie would keep the house and help Dennis run the farm. In return, she got room and board, a father and a last name for the baby she was expecting, and she would get five acres and a widow’s pension when Ezekiel died.

It was a marriage of convenience, and it saved her. She could not continue working for the Rinaldis. Enrico could not have a pregnant maid in his house. People would talk.

Who would believe she had been raped? Even if she had reported the attack, people still might not believe her.

Lucinda’s father was very sensitive to town gossip that was already speculating he could be the father of Vonnie’s baby. This was the best solution for Vonnie and for Ezekial.

But was it the best solution for Lisa?

Hollander arrived at Almasy House a half hour before his scheduled appointment with this commissioner or whomever it was who would inspect the house. It had been several months since he and Elaine moved out. A cobweb swung from the ceiling. A thin layer of dust covered the sheeted furniture. Why had he wanted to inherit this monstrosity. It wasn’t worth the years he had spent courting the old woman.

Rose’s bank accounts had been a disappointment. There had been no fortune, at least none he had found. What this place needed was an exorcism. But then he wasn’t a priest anymore. Let the evil spirits have the place.

He heard a noise in the cellar. Had that inspector arrived early? He moved toward the stairs, flipped the light switch. Nothing. Of course, the power was off. He himself had arranged for that. He heard a noise behind him, felt a shove and then he was falling head first down the cellar stairs. The cement floor came up to meet him.

He remained conscious at the bottom of the cellar stairs. Two pair of large men’s shoes approached him. He couldn’t move his head. He couldn’t look up to see who stood over him.

“Look at that. He’s still breathin’ A fall like that shoulda killed a man.”

“How we gonna finish him off?”

“Gotta be a board around here some place. Ain’t there a brick.”

Hollander closed his eyes. He didn’t feel the blow that killed him. But he knew one of the men who delivered it. It was that dumb deputy, the sheriff’s son.

At first, Elaine didn’t worry. Jeff often spent the day at the library or in one of the local restaurants. Sometimes he would go fishing.

Night came. She thought he might be with friends. Except he had made few friends in town. People mistrusted him. He had been dismissed by the Catholic Church; he lived with her and showed no sign of buying her a ring. People called what she and Jeff were doing “shacking up.” Elaine’s parents and their friends detested Jeff Hollander.

Early the next morning, Elaine called Leo’s office. “Jeff’s’ missing. I’m sure something happened to him.”

“When’s the last time you saw him?” Leo asked.

“Yesterday. He went to Almasy House. He was meeting somebody there. Somebody from the county.”

“Don’t see why anyone from the county would want to go there. You sure?”

“I just know he didn’t come back and something may have happened to him.”

“You got a key to that there old house?”

“No. Maybe. I think Jeff keeps one on the dresser. He might have taken it with him.”

 “I’ll be there in half an hour and then if you have a key, we’ll go look around at the old house.”

“Di I have to go back there. The place gives me the creeps.”

“I’ll have Miles do it. Just give him the key if you have it.”

Miles had his back to; his dad, and he was going through some old files when the call came in. He smiled. “Don’t mind if I do take this call.” he said.

He knew the door to the house would be open. He and Sonny had left it that way.”