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Steel Blues -- A New Beginning

And in keeping with the preview of Secrets that wasn't in The Furies, here's the preview of Steel Blues that wasn't in Lost Things! This is the beginning of the first chapter, and I'd love to hear what you guys think! Steel Blues will be out probably in January or February.

Colorado Springs, 1931

Lewis Segura looked out the kitchen window in the gathering dark. No new snow was falling, but five inches of powder littered the yard with only the path between back door and driveway dug out neatly. There was nothing really to see except the garage and the slope that backed it rising steeply, covered in aspen trees long since shorn of their leaves. In the fall they made a glorious display, but in winter the bare branches wrote dark shapes against the snow.

From the front windows he could look toward town, down the two lane graveled road that rose from flatter land in the valley toward the old farmhouse. Looking east the view was breathtaking, possibly one of the reasons Gil had picked this house for his bride. Of course Gil had been dead nearly five years, and Alma was Lewis' bride now -- his wife -- strange as it felt to say those words.

From the living room came the first strains of music, a jazz band beginning their set and getting louder as Jerry Ballard tuned the radio. It had a good beat to it, real pure New Orleans jazz, and Lewis wondered what station Jerry was picking up. Jerry had been doing some work today, unlike the rest of them. He'd spent most of the morning with his books and papers spread out all over the living room, working on a peer review of an article about the defeat of an Assyrian king by a pharaoh of Egypt whose name Lewis couldn't remember, though Jerry had told him twice. Better still, Jerry was getting paid for it, though the fee was modest.

They could use it. Fifteen months had passed since the stock market crash had plunged the nation into the worst economic crisis anyone could have imagined, and it just kept getting worse. Unemployment had now reached twenty-five percent, one out of every four men, and President Hoover seemed to be doing nothing to stop it. In fact, it felt like he was making it worse. A few months ago he'd decided to pull all the contracts for carrying mail from the small carriers and consolidate them among the four biggest air companies -- nice for their stockholders, but death for small businesses like Gilchrist Aviation. They'd lost their mail contract, a good half of their business.

With the Depression, passengers weren't paying good money to travel by air. Maybe Hollywood millionaires could still afford it, but precious few people in Colorado could. And January was not a spectacular month for crop dusting.

Come April or May they'd probably have to head for California and do some itinerant work, spraying crops wherever the jobs were available. Worst of all, they'd probably have to split up, as nobody needed three pilots. Either that, or they'd have to start selling off planes, beginning with Alma's beloved Jenny.

As it was, they were lucky to get one job a week, and the long months until April or May stretched out cold and bleak. There had to be coal for the furnace and fuel for the planes, food for four people. None of those things could be compromised on.

Lewis turned his attention back to the pot bubbling away on top of the stove. It wasn't much, just some cheap ground beef and kidney beans, a can of tomatoes and a couple of onions, dressed up with some spices out of the cabinet. Just chili con carne, but on a cold Friday night in winter it hit the spot. The cornbread was already out of the oven and cooling on the butcher's board.

"They're back," Jerry called from the living room. He could see down the road as Lewis couldn't, and it was a moment before Lewis heard the sound of the engine, Alma's Ford Runabout truck chugging up the grade in the snow. She and Mitch had taken the truck down to the airfield. It was much too cold and wet for Mitch's Torpedo. His sporty convertible was under a tarpaulin in the garage.

"I hear them," Lewis called back, turning to get bowls out of the china cabinet. Bowls, spoons.... He poured the hot water through the top of the coffee pot and set it on the back eye of the stove, listening to it drip through cheerfully. The Dixieland Jazz dipped and swayed on the radio.

Jerry appeared in the doorway leaning heavily on his cane. His thick brown hair was touched with gray at the temples, and with his gold rimmed glasses and moleskin sportcoat he looked every inch the distinguished professor he should have been. "That smells good."

"Thanks," Lewis said.

The back door jangled as Alma and Mitch stomped in, Mitch stamping his boots on the mat outside rather than just tracking snow the way Alma did. Her knit hat had a bobble on it that bounced as she shook the snow off. "Oh that smells good." She took the hat off her bobbed blond hair.

"Just like your mama made?" Mitch asked cheerfully, stripping his gloves off. He looked like the high school football star he had been, just gone to seed a bit - thirty nine and a touch more rugged, though his Southern accent was still thick enough to spread on bread.

Lewis frowned. "I think I picked this up wildcatting in Texas." He didn't remember his mother making anything of the kind. This was Tex Mex, not Californian, not the roasted meats and ristas of peppers he remembered from his childhood.

Alma had gone over and taken the lid off the pot. "Oh yes," she said with a blissful smile as she smelled the steam. "I'm half frozen."

"Any charters?" Lewis asked.

"Dr. Hambly says he might need to go to San Francisco at the end of the month," Mitch said. "But he's not sure yet."

"That's a nice job if it happens," Lewis said optimistically.

"If it happens." Alma divested herself of her coat and draped it over the back of her ladderback chair before dropping into it. "And I don't see anything else."

Uncharacteristically, it was Jerry who stopped the slide into gloom. "Come on, Al," he said. "It's Friday night. No more work." He brandished one of the bowls at Lewis. "Have some dinner and let's enjoy the music."

Mitch glanced toward the living room door. "That's real New Orleans jazz. Who've you got there?"

Jerry shrugged, still holding the bowl for Lewis to fill it. "Band out of Chicago, Louis Armstrong and the Stompers, I think the announcer said."

"Real nice," Mitch said appreciatively. "Nothing like New Orleans jazz."

Jerry tilted his head. "And when were you ever in New Orleans, Mitch?"

Mitch shrugged, not looking at Jerry as he got the coffee cups and poured carefully, putting them each on the table, then going to the icebox to snag Alma's sweetened condensed milk. "I don't know."

"Thank you," she said.

Mitch smiled. "We know you can't do without it."

Lewis neatly flipped the cornbread out of the cast iron frying pan upside down on a plate and put it on the table before he sank into his chair.

He barely got his eyes closed before Mitch said, "For what we are about to receive, may we be truly grateful."

"Amen," Alma said quietly.

Jerry looked vaguely miffed. "That was perfunctory."

"Oh come on, Jer," Mitch said, cutting into the cornbread. "If you'd said grace it would have been nine psalms long and taken half an hour."

Alma laughed, and after a second Jerry cracked a smile. "I suppose it's the thought that counts."

"So what's up with the magneto on the Terrier?" Lewis asked, referring to the mechanical problem that Alma and Mitch had gone down to the field to fix. The Terrier was their largest plane, a trimotor that was Mitch's beloved, and recounting its woes took most of dinner. Full dark had come and there was the faint ticking of freezing rain falling against the window.

Mitch lifted his head and looked out, though there was nothing to see. "Rotten night."

"We're nice and warm," Lewis said, and Alma smiled back at him, nudging him under the table with her knee.

"That we are," Jerry said. "Though the way this country is going...."

"Jerry...." Alma said.

Lewis frowned. "If we don't get some business soon," he began. He wasn't an owner of Gilchrist Aviation -- Alma and Mitch owned it jointly -- and he was acutely aware that if he hadn't married the boss, if he were still a hired pilot, he'd be out looking for work. They didn't have work for one pilot full time, much less three. Not anymore.

"I'll sell my car," Mitch offered. Silence greeted that, and he shrugged, spooning in another mouthful of chili and chewing carefully. "That ought to get us a little ways."

Alma shook her head. "Mitch, that's your car, not the company's."

"And it's your roof over our heads." He glanced around the warm kitchen. "Gil bought a house and I had a couple of really nice cars."

"You pay rent," Alma argued. "You pay more than your fair share now."

Jerry put his hand over hers. "We're all family, Alma. Let us each do what we can." He glanced at Lewis over the top of his glasses. "We stick together."

Lewis had come late to this, to this fellowship that they called the Aedificatorii Templi, the Builders of the Temple, a magical lodge dedicated to the august goal of perfecting the world. He'd never dreamed something like this really existed. Or, if it did outside the world of penny dreadfuls and Black Mask Magazine, he'd imagined it peopled by serious men in dark suits, leaders of industry and science, meeting in secret in basement chapels hidden away at country estates. Not by ordinary people, aviators and college professors, who lived in an ordinary house in an ordinary town. Colorado Springs was a pretty ordinary place.

Of course some of the things they'd done were pretty extraordinary. Eighteen months ago he'd been aboard a transatlantic airship, trying to save passengers and crew from a man possessed by a demon. Eighteen months ago he'd killed a man in the woods above Lake Nemi, taking on the age-old task of being the priest of the goddess Diana, her chosen one.

Unfortunately, this job didn't come with a salary.

The jazz on the radio had given way to a message from the show's sponsor, Ford Automobiles. One day he might buy a Ford. Well, when things got better. Surely they would eventually, even if there was no light in sight at the end of the tunnel.

"We do stick together," Alma said, squeezing Jerry's hand and releasing it. "And don't think I don't know how you've been hustling for work."

Jerry shrugged. "Every little bit."

"Shhhh," Mitch said. "I want to hear this."

"...most exciting aeronautical event of our time! The Great Passenger Derby ushers in a new era of excitement in the air! A no holds barred contest of skill and speed featuring the greatest pilots of our time in a thrilling race from Pacific to Atlantic! Taking off from Grand Central field in Los Angeles on March first, the finest teams will compete to reach the ultimate goal -- sunny Miami, Florida! With a purse of $25,000, the stakes have never been higher! The sky is the limit! So stay tuned to this station for complete coverage of the Great Passenger Derby!"

"We could win that," Mitch said.

"If we had a $500 entrance fee to blow," Alma said. "For that matter, if we had $500, we wouldn't need to enter the race."

"Are you kidding?" Lewis asked. "It's a $25,000 prize! That's a small fortune. We'd be set for a couple of years, all of us."

Alma frowned. "It's bound to be really competitive, but the Terrier could handle it."

"The Terrier could win it," Mitch said. He scooped some more butter onto his cornbread. "We could win it. The three of us? Come on, Al. Who's better? There are a lot of people as good, but I'd stake any money that there's nobody better."

Lewis nodded. "We're a good team." Three pilots would give them a lot of leeway, and Al was as good a mechanic as anybody was likely to ever see, better than him.

Al looked at Mitch, her blue eyes grave. "We don't have $500," she said levelly.

"Henry does."

Everyone looked around at Jerry who shrugged expressively. "Henry Kershaw has the money, and he designed the Terrier. Don't you think he'd like to see a plane he designed and built win a high profile race? It would mean thousands and thousands of dollars in orders for him. Besides," Jerry picked up his coffee cup. "Don't you think Henry owes us one for saving his business, not to mention his life?"

Henry had been one of the people possessed by the demon a year and a half ago, and without their interference would certainly have been dead. But....

"Don't you think you've milked that for all it's worth already?" Mitch asked. "The first class steamer tickets home?"

"It never hurts to ask," Alma said. She looked at Lewis. "Henry can say no."

"He can," Lewis said. There was the same bright thing in her eyes that he always loved, the thrill of a challenge in the air that spurred him on. A coast to coast air race, no holds barred.... Something prickled at the base of his spine, the faint touch of sight he was beginning to use, beginning to rely on. "But he won't."


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 16th, 2012 06:09 pm (UTC)
awww, pans camera down to check in on the family.....what a beautiful scene!

Have I told you how much I love this opener? I think I may have! :)
Jul. 16th, 2012 11:08 pm (UTC)
You have! :)

I'm glad you think it's beautiful. I love them so much.
Jul. 16th, 2012 10:56 pm (UTC)
How long do we have to wait for this?
Jul. 16th, 2012 11:11 pm (UTC)
The schedule's not set yet, but probably January or February. Bob Eggleton's doing the cover again, which will be gorgeous, and we'd like to do the Barnes & Noble preview again, since that's been amazingly successful, but that means fitting B&N's schedule of course. And we have to have 90 days lead on review copies for Publisher's Weekly et al. So it's looking like January or February. I'll post the firm date when I know for sure!

Meanwhile, we're working on the third book, Silver Bullet, and are not quite half done.
Jul. 17th, 2012 08:17 am (UTC)
Yay! Lewis is so at home in the kitchen, it's wonderful. I had to look up what wildcatting was! It sounded very much like something that Lewis would never do.

Can't wait for this to come out!
Jul. 17th, 2012 12:44 pm (UTC)
Lewis has life skills! And it's a good thing, because none of the others can cook. Certainly Alma can't boil water.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )