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Moonlight Nocturne


During the Prohibition Era, the St. Clair River, connecting Lake Huron with the lower Great Lakes, was a significant waterway for bootleggers. But the smuggler's boats didn't go up or down the river; they went across it, from wet Canada to dry Michigan. And although the mobs dominated the racket, any farmer with a row-boat, and money enough to buy a few cases of whiskey in Canada, could go into the business in a small way.

It could be dangerous though, and not just because of the G-men. Which gave rise to stories; I read some of them when I was a kid.

Fifty years after the Prohibition Amendment was repealed, Herb Clough resurrected Leslie Charteris's much loved Saint mystery magazine, with Charteris's cooperation. And I decided to try my hand at writing mysteries. "Moonlight Nocturne" was one of the results, and Herb bought it, along with a couple of others. But before "Nocturne" could be used, distribution problems sank the venture, and those stories already paid for but unpublished were reverted to the authors.

I later modified "Moonlight Nocturne" slightly for a different publisher, Pulphouse, which published it. I hope you like it.

* * *

My lungs felt ready to burst, but I knew better than to surge to the surface, splashing and blowing. Instead I just kind of slid up and breathed big and quiet through a wide open mouth, hoping they wouldn't spot me.

It would have helped if there hadn't been a half moon riding the sky. I was in luck: they hadn't cut off their motor. I could hear it growling a hundred feet away, and turned to look back at it. I could hear them talking too, loud enough I knew it wasn't English. If it'd been me, I'd have cut the motor and no talking, and listened like crazy. Making that much noise was stupid.

I'd been stupid too. I should have just fallen out of the boat when they started to shoot, instead of diving overboard. Then they could have thought I was dead, same as Art was. It's a wonder I wasn't, the way they'd charged us shooting with Tommy guns.

No way were they T-men, Treasury agents. They were part of the Purple Gang that ruled the rackets down in Detroit, forty miles off south. Especially bootlegging; that was 1927.

Anyway they were idling along with the current, their searchlight poking around where our boat was floating. That hundred feet wouldn't mean much to a bunch of bullets, if they saw me, but just then they weren't looking in the right place. As quiet as I could, I started swimming on my side toward the Canadian shore, maybe a quarter mile away. They'd probably expect me to swim for the Michigan side, which was closer, and likeliest to be my home side.

But closer doesn't mean much if you're shot full of holes. Then the searchlight started stabbing out farther, and I went back under, avoiding any splashing, letting my waterlogged clothes take me down, and stroked on east under water.

I came up again after maybe fifty feet; I was still short of breath from the first time. Gradually I opened the gap, going under anytime the searchlight came my way. I was surprised they didn't spot me without it. I guess they were watching where the lights were; they were using a flashlight in the water close to their boat now, and the searchlight out farther.

When I got far enough away, I shucked out of my clothes and clodhopper shoes, and after awhile I got feeling pretty safe. I wasn't worried about playing out and drowning; I'd swum a lot in that river in my nineteen years.

I was swimming on my right side, facing upstream, when all of a sudden I got this awful fear, and turned. A ship was bearing down on me, an ore carrier upbound for Lake Huron. It looked like a mountain. I took off swimming hard. She had a lookout, watching the water ahead for small boats I suppose, and he seen me without any searchlight. "Man in the water!" he bellowed. The whistle started hooting, and I swam for all I was worth. She passed some sixty or eighty feet behind me.

I didn't stop to catch my breath, just kept going. Them wops in the speedboat had to have heard what the sailor yelled.

They did come over. I had to slip under several times when their light came my way. One of them yelled once, " 'ey, sonabitch! Why donna you give up? We don' wanna kill you. Just aska you questions: whatsa you name, who you worka for."

I wasn't having none of it. First of all, I didn't believe him. And second, who I'd been working for was my brother Gus. After a little bit I crawled out onto the bank and into the grass, glad I was suntanned. They were still cruising up and down out there, and I could almost smell their hate, even if I couldn't understand it. We'd had twelve cases of Black Label when they'd hit us: small potatoes. And if they wanted Gus to stop, all they had to do was tell him. He'd have quit right away.

When I got far enough away, I got up and started walking. The mosquitoes were fierce. I didn't really know where I was going, but I'd come to a road soon enough, and follow it. I wondered if there was something Gus hadn't told me. Gus was my oldest brother, twenty-three then. I'd never done a booze run before, but one of the guys that usually did was sick, and Gus asked me to. Now there I was in my underwear, in a big wet meadow with 50 billion mosquitoes.

There was a ground fog forming. The Canadian side was Indian reservation along there, and they raised a lot of horses. Pretty soon I saw a bunch of Percherons, blacks and grays, running around playing, and I couldn't see their legs in the ground fog. It looked like their bodies were floating around on it. They came trotting up to look me over, then I clapped my hands together and they ran off.

I came to a gravel road and followed it, limping because my feet were sore, till I came to a creek, and two Indians fishing over the rail of a little bridge, bullheading. They talked to me as if guys walking down the road in their underwear was common as dirt. I ended up going home with them, and in the morning they took me across to the Michigan side. I was wearing someone's cast-off overalls, and glad to have them.

They let me off at Frank's boat dock at Tiberius, my home town, about forty rod from where I worked at Elwood's auto repairs. Tiberius was one of those little towns—four hundred people—where everybody knows everybody and talks about their doings. Except if it had anything to do with running booze over from Canada. Then there wasn't much said.

I expected to get razzed, limping in barefoot with overalls that ragged, but Jim Elwood glanced around at the couple of guys there whittling and talking, and motioned me to come in the little room he had for an office. He wiped grease off his hands with an old shirt-rag, then closed the door before he started talking.

"Jake," he said quietly, "there was two guys in here earlier asking for Jake Rubner. They weren't anybody I ever saw before, and they were wearing suits. The one that talked sounded Eye-talian." Jim looked hard at me. "I think you better go someplace else for a while. Flint maybe."

He didn't ask why I was late, or what I'd been doing or anything.

I'd been boarding just up the street with Grandma Jennings. She wasn't really my grandma. Everybody called her that because she was so old, her first husband had been killed in the Civil War. Anyway I went home and put on shoes and some of my old clothes, wondering what to do. Then Grandma Jennings knocked at my door and told me some funny-looking gazebel had come by an hour earlier, asking for me.

So I walked to the cheese factory to talk to my brother Gus. He'd been running the place since Pappa got run over and killed by a team of horses a year earlier that got startled when a rock went through the silo filter. The reason I worked for Jim Elwood instead of Gus was partly that I loved working on cars. And partly that, being in the family, I'd be expected to work in the cheese factory for almost nothing.

But Gus and I got along good, for brothers. We even looked a lot alike, except he was blonder and huskier. He could take a ten-gallon can of milk in each hand—around 105, 110 pounds each—and load them both at once on his model-T truck. I needed both hands to put up one can, like just about anyone else.

And Gus had all his fingers. I'd lost the ends off three of mine to a buzz saw, buzzing firewood when I was fourteen. But all that meant was, I picked my nose with my little finger, 'cause the others were blunt and hardly had any nails.

Anyhow I told Gus what happened, and he looked thoughtful for a minute. Finally he looked me right in the eye. "What you been doing that you ain't told me about?"

"Nothing, Gus. Honest to gosh!"

"Well if they're asking for you by name, it must be you they're after, not my little rum running business. How much money you got?"

"About $30 in my room and 120 in the bank at Marine City." That was quite a lot in those days.

We ended up him taking me in his chevvy to Marine City, where I drew out my money. Then he took me out to the home place, about four miles west of town. I was to stay there, out of sight, till he could arrange for me to go work someplace far away.

That was long before television, before even electricity on farms. So I played solitaire, and after supper, Ferris, my other brother, played whist with me awhile. By the third day I was so bored, I was ready to pick up and leave. Along about four o'clock, Gus came out and said he'd got a telegram that there was a job for me in Pinconning, at a big cheese plant. He'd come get me about nine the next morning, drive me up to Port Huron and buy me a train ticket.

I wasn't all that happy to be going off like that. I'd been on the farm all my life, or no farther than Grandma Jennings'. Then my cousin Reini showed up just at supper, and I didn't feel so bad about it, because he said he'd like to stay awhile. He'd lived with us when I was ten and he was fifteen, just out of school. He'd given me such a bad time, Pa ran him off, and he'd been a bum ever since. Drifted through every couple of years and stopped a few days.

That night though, after we'd all gone to bed, I couldn't get to sleep—I was homesick already—so I got dressed and snuck out to take a last walk around the farm. There was a cool breeze out of the north, and the moon was about three-quarters full—about as nice a night as you could ask for. The corn was up to my waist. I walked out along the county ditch, where I'd trapped many a muskrat, to the north edge of the woods, the sugar bush. There I climbed this tree I'd climbed before, and out onto the roof of the sugar house. The wind kept the mosquitoes off up there, and I laid down to look at the moon.

Which saved my life, because I fell asleep.

And dreamed. In the dream there were three of us. We were driving west on the Switzer Road. When we came to ours, the Rubner Road, we turned north, and I told the driver to switch off the headlights. Told him in Eye-talian; it seemed natural to me. Going slow like we were, the moonlight was enough to drive by. When we were just coming to our place, I had him pull off in the shadow of a big old sugar maple, and we got out—all three of us had guns—and walked up to the house. That was the first it felt like a proper dream. Whispering in Eye-talian, I told one of them to stay on the porch and watch, and me and the other one went in. Grandma's bedroom was downstairs. I opened her door and went in alone, and there she was asleep, the moonlight coming in her open window. Her teeth were in a glass by the bed, and her mouth was open and looked kind of caved-in. She never liked people to see her without her teeth.

And I thought: this is a weird dream. Because just then, part of me knew and thought just like me, but the other part—it was like it was separate, and I couldn't know what it was thinking. I took out a folding knife with a handle about six inches long, then I pressed a button and the blade snapped out. Then I reached down with my left hand, grabbed her hair, and—cut her throat!

I woke up with such a start, I nearly went off the roof. Then I sat up, shaking for a few minutes. I couldn't get the picture out of my head, the dream; it was stuck there in the moment of cutting her throat. Finally I climbed down and started for home along the ditch.

When I got past the woods, I could see fire, and took off running. Either the house or the barn was burning. Turned out it was the house. It fell in while I was running along the cornfield, a great cloud of flame and sparks going high in the air. When I got up near the buildings, I stayed back out of sight because some neighbors were there. They'd got the livestock out and run them into the pasture, in case the wind should shift and burning shingles light the barn off. And the pumper from Tiberius had got there and was hosing down the barn and the sheds. Finally they hosed down the fire to cool it off, and left.

When everyone was gone, I hung around, sort of numb. I half slept a little on the ground behind the barn, shivering with cold and shock. When the moon finally set, the heap of embers had cooled enough, I could go up almost to the foundation. I saw the cookstove, and the potbellied stove in the living room. I could even see all five bedsteads, four of them with bodies that had to be Ma and Grandma and Ferris and Reini. Reini'd come a day too early.

It would have been worse, except I knew they hadn't burned to death; their throats had been cut in their sleep. I knew that without a doubt. I just walked away then, walked west down the road through the night, and never went back for more than sixty years. But I couldn't walk away from how I felt. Whoever did it, it was me they were after, so it seemed like somehow I was to blame. I was too numb to cry, walking down that gravel road. I'd do my crying a few nights later, on a coal car crossing Nebraska.

On the west coast I worked harvests and I mechanicked. That's when I started having the nightmare, the same one I dreamed on the roof of the sugar house. But worse, as if what happened later added horror to it. There was a while there it happened so often, I'd be afraid to go to sleep, afraid I'd find myself cutting Grandma's throat again. I got fired from one harvest crew because I'd woke up yelling something about the knife and the blood. I guess they were afraid to have me around, figured I might be a murderer. I didn't blame them any; somehow—somehow it seemed like I'd done something, and because of it, the mob had killed three quarters of my family. All but Gus. Or maybe they'd got him too.

After awhile I got married and started a family, and only had the dream maybe a couple of times a year, or less. Then World War Two came, and the marines turned me down because of the lost fingertips, so I joined the Seabees and spent the war on the seat of a bulldozer, from Guadalcanal to Kwajalein. I never had the dream the whole time I was over there. There were too many gyrenes and soldiers getting killed.

After that I had a farm equipment sales and service in Bakersfield, California for thirty years. Every now and then I'd have the dream, but less and less. I'd go three or four years without it, then there it would be again. After I'd woke up and the horror faded, I'd feel the grief, that old, unexplained loss, a little like when I rode that hopper car across Nebraska. And I'd wonder what I'd done to make it all happen.

In 1978 I retired, and Betty Lou—my wife—and I did a lot of traveling in our Chippewa Motor Home. We'd visit our kids and grandkids from Houston to Fargo to Charlottesville, or her sister in Idaho Falls. We never went back to Michigan, and by that time she never asked about it any more. In '83 she had a heart attack, and I lost her. After that I played a lot of golf.

This August I visited Dick Batey, an old Seabees buddy in a retirement home in San Diego, and he introduced me to some of his friends there. One was this woman, and after he said my name, she stared at me like she couldn't believe it.

"Jake Rubner? Are you from Michigan?"

Maybe I should have said no. But what I did say was, "Yeah, a long time ago."

"Do you know who I am?" she asked.

I looked at her hard, but I couldn't recognize her as anyone I'd ever known.

"Mary," she said expectantly. Then, "Mary Wocelka." Her voice was like a young woman's.

"Um. Oh yeah."

She concentrated. "You were from some—little town up the Saint Clair River, toward Port Huron."

"Tiberius," I said.

She laughed. "That's it, Tiberius. I was never there, although I must have seen it from Johnny's yacht."

Dick interrupted us. "Look, you two got things to talk about, and I got to go out and get some smokes. I'll be back in a little while." He winked over his shoulder at me as he left, then Mary led me out into the garden, her hand on my arm.

"You were the best," she said to me softly, "the best ever. I thought of you often over those years, Jake. I still do, sometimes. It's hard to believe we had just that one weekend together."

She reached out and took my hands with hers. She was pretty, even in her eighties, but I had no idea what she was talking about.

"You had the best body I ever saw," she went on. "Muscles! When I first saw you on the beach, before I ever went up to you, I thought, 'that's the man for me!' The only problem was Johnny Boccato. We might get away with a weekend, but if we'd kept on, he'd have found out and killed both of us.

"It would have been more than male pride and Sicilian passion," she went on. "Johnny Boccato actually loved me. And I played around on him, which was not only a poor thing to do to someone; in this case it was playing with dynamite."

"Or with fire," I said.

She nodded. "Or with fire." Then she noticed my hand. "Oh! What happened to your fingers?"

"Uh, lost the ends of them in an accident. Years ago."

"That's too bad. I remember thinking how remarkable it was that such strong hands could have such lovely nails." Her eyes trapped mine. "You don't remember, do you?"

"Yes," I lied, "I remember. It was a long time ago. More than sixty years. Did you ever tell anyone?"

"Only Ruth, my chum, the girl I was with when I first saw you. She was full of questions, and I had to share it with someone.

"You changed my life, do you know that?" she went on. "After you, I couldn't stay with Johnny Boccato anymore. He might have been a big man in the mob, and a big man with gifts, but he was no one I could love."

You changed my life too, I thought.

"So a few days later I ran away," she said, "and came out to Hollywood. But I was afraid to get into films. If I made it big, Johnny would know where I was. So instead I married a nice nice man, who ended up making lots of money in real estate. But lie wasn't any Jake Rubner in bed."

She smiled again. "I even named our second son Jacob, after you."

After me. Well, I went back to Bakersfield and thought about it a lot for a couple months. I couldn't help thinking about it, because the nightmares came back, every night for a while. But after I'd wake up, it wasn't grief I felt. Finally I drove back to Michigan. Things were a lot different after sixty years. Across the river from Tiberius, where there used to he horse pastures—Indian reservation—there was oil refineries. But some of the same people were still around; I looked up some of them. They could hardly believe it; they thought I'd died in the fire; they thought Reini was me. That's what the papers said; what the sheriff thought. I also went out and looked at the old farm. There was a new house, of course, or it had been new half a century ago. I found I could look at the place without crying.

The cheese factory is a lot bigger, and so are Rubner's Cheeses. But Gus wasn't there. He'd retired, and had already left his big summer home on Lake Huron for his winter home down here in Sarasota.

When Gus answered his doorbell, he didn't believe me at first, didn't believe who I was. So I told him about Reini, and being out at the sugar house when the fire started. Then he hugged me and cried, and grinned through his tears and cried harder, right there on his porch. I'm a little surprised I didn't cry with him.

Then he mopped his tears and asked me and my friend in, and we sat down and he started reminiscing. I almost changed my mind, listening to him, but he didn't stop soon enough. He'd made a nice little pile bringing booze across the river and distributing it to speakeasies as far north and west as Imlay City and south almost to Mount Clemens. "South of there," he said, "I left well enough alone. I didn't want to get the mob after me. I guess"—he sobered when he said it—"I guess even that was too far south.

"Anyway, when they burnt the old home place, I got out of bootlegging. I'd only got into it for money to build up the cheese business."

He looked at me curiously then. "What have you been doing all those years?"

I told him, told him what I've told you. Including my talk with Mary Wocelka. "Why did you use my name?" I asked him. "Why did you do that?"

He stared back at me, looking all caved in, and shook his head a little shake that said he didn't know why. But I knew. It was insurance, in case Boccato found out. And Boccato had.

"Anyway," I said, "that told me why they'd been after me. And why the house got burned down, and Grandma and Mama and Ferris with it, and Reini."

I stood up. "Now I'd like to introduce you to my, uh, my friend here. He understands about things like this. Gus, I'd like you to meet Johnny Boccato."

Boccato had gotten up when I began the introduction, a smallish old man about ninety, still dapper. He didn't say a thing, just bowed slightly, kind of a head bob, pulled out a small flat automatic, and emptied the clip into Gus.

Then, when he'd put his gun away, I took my little .32 caliber out of my jacket and shot Johnny Boccato once, right in the head. Because he'd killed my whole family, counting Gus now.

So that's the story: three old men evening out some scores at the end of their years. I'm sorry if I caused any trouble. And Lieutenant: I don't think I'm going to have the nightmare again; I don't think it's there anymore.

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