When heat accumulates in its cavities bamboo explodes like a gigantic firecracker. Imagine thousands of stalks, some the size of telephone poles, detonating as the buildings and eventually the wall went up in flames. Horrified, as if they’d witnessed the antechamber to hell, the soldiers escaped leaving behind their helmets, their weapons, their dead, and their dignity.
The horses were found the next day in the bamboo forest, drinking from a stream. Once it was ascertained they were docile, the Agape freed the extraordinary animals of their heavy saddles and bits, and charged the children to care for them. The archers returned to the village to see if the soldiers would be back. From a passage in a journal dated September 15, 1538, the conquistadors left that very night. Half Moon was abandoned one hundred forty years, submerged in a riot of tropical growth held hostage by vines the size of anacondas.
In 1678 a group of pioneers from Europe, intrigued by the number of birds hovering over the peninsula, forged a path through the thick foliage. They came upon the impressive spring that had sustained the Agape, and decided this is where they would build their town. Two settlers in particular were responsible for its future prosperity; an eccentric adventurer by the name of Gaetano Galeazzi, and Doctor Brunner’s young daughter Eleanora.
Galeazzi, whose hobbies were chemistry and botany, was collecting plants near the bamboo forest when he sprained his ankle. He was looking for a stick strong enough to help him walk when two men and a girl child appeared. Without a word the men made a poultice with some purple berries and spread it over the swelling ankle while the child searched for a stick to make a crutch. The Agape, who’d resettled in the clearing where they found the horses, were familiar with European customs but they’d never seen anything quite like Galeazzi. Tall with impossibly thin legs, he favored silk kimonos with embroidered dragons in elaborate death grips. His face was overrun with freckles while thick rimless glasses made the eyes appear detached. His wispy blond hair was held in check by an ornate comb inlaid with jade and coral (gift from a Frenchwoman in Indochina). In the forest, he’d protect his face with a veil draped over a wide-brimmed hat tucked under the collar. Decked in this manner he looked very much like a gigantic bug.
The ankle mended beautifully and Galeazzi, curious to know more about the herbs they used to heal, bonded with his benefactors. He teamed with Eleanora Brunner who wrote the remedies in a notebook along with drawings detailing each plant. A family friend encouraged them to publish their work - the printing press had recently arrived in the New World - and took copies back with her to England. The booklet gained instant popularity, and was the fashionable thing amongst Europe’s elite to own one. Eleanora’s fiancé had the idea to harvest and sell the dried herbs. Cultivated in the rich soil around Lake Mantis, they were shipped from a brick building with a mosaic over the door boasting Half Moon Herbals, Inc. Soon after, the enterprise became the main industry in town.
The fresh-water spring was tamed into a decent-sized lake surrounded by a boardwalk and inaugurated as ‘Moon Lake’ with great pomp in 1753 by Randolph Carrington, a business-savvy mayor with an eye for the dramatic. Visitors came from afar to relax under the trees in the park and bathe in the lake’s mineral-rich water. The town prospered.
In 1895 a young lawyer from Belgium, Monsieur Jean-Auguste Dubois, moved to Half Moon with his growing family. A passionate amateur archaeologist, he’d take his children excavating while his wife and mother-in-law, uninclined to tassel with mosquitoes and snakes, classified the artifacts as best they could. Twenty years later Dubois bought land facing Moon Lake and sent for his old schoolmate, the architect François Balère, to design a museum to house his collection. He wanted it to look like a greenhouse surrounded by a botanical garden, and Balère added a glass dome, at the time popular with nobility in Europe and Russia. The Dubois Museum of History was completed in 1920 with a dome that filtered the sun’s rays through a prism.
After World War II the population on the peninsula doubled, and by the 1960s half the residents had migrated from different countries, so entire neighborhoods have the distinctive architecture and lifestyle reminiscent of each culture. In 1972 the town limits extended east beyond the peninsula up to Lake Mantis, where a community of farmers provides eggs, dairy products, fruits and vegetables for the restaurants and markets.
The coastline along the mainland north of the peninsula is speckled with family-owned motels and restaurants. Further north is a gas station, a grocery store, a general store, two churches, a post office, a fire station, a storage facility, a boat dock and a trailer park. To the south is the bamboo forest and marshland, home to countless birds and some very large alligators. Beyond that is the town of Patras, population one thousand seven hundred. Settled by Greek refugees after the Greco-Turkish War of 1897, it boasts the State’s oldest hardware store.
- Chapter One -
Alex, flat on her back, stared unblinking at the ceiling fan as it rotated on its ancient axle. This was her third attempt to hypnotize herself but the creaking of the fan and the cries of seagulls were making her sleepy. She forced herself to a standing position, and poured a glass of lemonade from the side table.
“Why won’t my brain do what I tell it to do?”
Alexandra and her brother Zahni were on the porch waiting for Maria and Mario, their neighbors and closest friends, to get back from Mass with their mother. The plan was to take the bus to the museum to see the exhibit on prehistoric birds, and then swim at the lake. Without looking up from his book Zahni said,
“Apparently Saint Paul asked God the same question.”
“Something like dear God, why is it when I decide to do one thing I end up doing the opposite?”
Alex groaned. If a saint had to ask, what chances did she have to discipline her own mind?
“He was depressed,” added Zahni.
“I’ll bet he was.”
I mean clinically, possibly bipolar.”
Who knows where her nine-year-old brother found this tidbit of prophetic gossip. Alex stopped asking a long time ago, after she came home from school to find he’d read her entire science textbook in one afternoon. He was four.
Zahni, five years younger than his sister, was a grade above her. He could have gone to the Lyceum where gifted students were exposed to the greatest minds. The family discussed this and decided unanimously that he should stay home. He’d attend public high school and at the same time remain in contact with the Lyceum until he chose a university.
Zahni’s first year was predictably difficult. A misfit, he was alternately teased or ignored by the other students until the day his class found the janitor in the library on the floor and unconscious. Lucy Jenkins, who wore her bangs down almost to her nose, stumbled over the body and let off a bloodcurdling scream that was heard all the way to the cafeteria. The students stampeded from the room and in no time the entire campus learned of the “dead man”. Zahni performed first aid, so when the medics arrived the janitor had already regained consciousness.
A huge fan of Sherlock Holmes, it was Zahni’s observations that helped Detective Khan solve the mystery. He was certain someone else was in the library while he was tending to the janitor. He didn’t actually see anyone; more like he felt it. No one believed him so he did his own investigating. If nothing had been taken from the library, Zahni figured something had to have been placed, except how did the person get in when the door was closed, and what was the motive?
The large and rambling building from the 1930s had gone through several upgrades since its conception, and Zahni found out from Artimus Bentham that originally the east wing was a ‘speakeasy’ that served alcohol during Prohibition. Speakeasys, the retired hat-maker told him, had escape routes for their customers in case the police arrived to arrest them. In the Records room at City Hall, Zahni found the blueprints of the building with the secret passageway, and convinced Detective Kahn to put up a surveillance camera in the library. Sure enough, on the third night a man appeared from a door behind the shelves and was caught taking a rare manuscript out from one of the books. Zahni was thereafter treated with courtesy by the other students, and if the teasing never stopped entirely, he was no longer a misfit.
Zahni was particularly keen on seeing the main display at the museum - the crystallized skeleton of a prehistoric bird that scientists titled Archaeopteryx Crystallo. All summer he'd been collecting bird skeletons bleached by the sun and salt water. Generally disinclined to exertion, he'd be up and out in the morning scouring the beach behind the house. To photograph the delicate bones his father helped him turn the shed in the backyard into a darkroom. They modified a table by installing lights under a sheet of glass so he could see inside the air sacks. The rays from the light released a distinct impression of feathers in varying degrees of transparency, weightless.
Physically, Zahni took after his father. Kadir Darvish emigrated from Iran with his parents when he was a child, fleeing the Ayatollah’s Islamic Revolution. He graduated with honors and taught at the university until he saw he could earn more as a cab driver than as a teacher, with more time to read, and quit his professorship. Kadir's parents took the career change as a personal affront, one of many. The most egregious of them all was their only son marrying outside the Muslim faith. His mother pleaded and wept and threatened to break all ties. Many Iranians immigrated to Half Moon because of the Revolution and formed a tight-knit community, but Mrs. Darvish preferred to complain rather than make friends. It was fortunate that while his parents worked Kadir stayed with his great-uncle, a wise and good-natured man who encouraged his nephew’s insatiable curiosity.
Alex had her mother Julia’s fair skin, hazel eyes and thick auburn hair. Tall for her age, she drove her mother crazy buying clothes. At school Coach caught up with her several times in the hallway to persuade her to be on the basketball team. Good luck.
An introvert, she abhorred competitive sports, even more so than shopping for clothes. In fourth grade a teacher noticed how well she swam and somehow found herself on the team. The day of the competition she froze as she was about to reach the other end of the pool, with everyone on the bleachers screaming at her. Her school lost. She counted it as the worst day of her life. Why was it so important to ‘beat’ someone?
If Kadir’s parents opposed their son’s union with a non-Muslim, horrified is not a strong enough word to describe the reaction of Julia’s father, a steadfast Southern Baptist, when she told her parents she was engaged to an Iranian.
“You’re marrying an Arab?” asked her mother uncertainly. “What on earth for?”
“Not an Arab, an Iranian,” replied Julia patiently. “Kadir was born in Iran.”
“Oh. Iran,” said her mother vaguely. Where was Iran, exactly?
Her father was nursing his second martini, staring out the living-room window between the flowered chintz curtains he so hated. His mind was on a round of golf at the country club, why it took him a moment to register what she was saying. He looked expectantly at his daughter, the glass suspended halfway to his lips like he was waiting for the punch line. When none was forthcoming he slammed his free hand on the table.
“Over my dead body! They’re all Ay-rabs!” he shouted. “All pagans with that ungodly religion of theirs! Savages!”
“Daddy! The Koran has the same prophets as the Bible.”
She tried to reason with him, how his English forefathers risked their lives and the lives of their families across uncharted waters to practice their religion the way they wanted to, exactly why Kadir’s parents left Iran. It was no use. Daddy was unequivocally unrepentant. For him, Methodists were pagans, and don’t get him started on the Catholics.
Maria and Mario, identical twins, were a year older than Alex almost to the day. Their parents, Donato Fortuni and his wife Mariana emigrated from Sicily after Donato slapped an officer in Mussolini’s army, and deserted. The captain of the cruise ship The Rex was anti-fascist and smuggled them on board just as the vessel set sail for New York. They were married on deck by the chaplain, rice was thrown by the passengers and crew, and the ship’s doctor took a photo of the newly-weds with the Statue of Liberty in the background.
Six months later, on December 7, 1941, the United States entered World War II and President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order for the incarceration of citizens of Japanese, German and Italian descent. Those not placed in camps had curfews, were forbidden radios or cameras and could not travel more than five miles from home without permission. Donato wore a tag to his job in the shipyard, that said Enemy Alien. Mariana, humiliated, refused to leave their Brooklyn apartment but Donato took it in stride. It was still better than being sent to invade Russia or Greece by Mussolini. The first years he worked a multitude of small jobs, from reproducing plaster copies of the Statue of Liberty to waiting in restaurants with red and white checkered tablecloths. He learned to weld and worked his way up to inspector. When his authority was questioned due to his pronunciation, he’d say “Einstein spoke with an accent”. When he retired he did some consulting, but mostly he liked to watch soccer on the Italian channel and eat his wife’s cooking.
Maria and Mario mischievously cut their hair in the same fashion, and wore the same rimless glasses and style of clothes, so at first glance it was hard to tell them apart. However, they had quite different personalities. Where she was cautious and practical, he was an impulsive daredevil.
When they got back from Mass, Mariana packed lunch for the group to take with them to the museum so they wouldn’t go hungry.
“Who discovered it?” asked Maria on the way over.
“The crystal fossil? Bedouins, by accident, in the northernmost tip of the Sahara Desert near Libya,” said Zahni. “it’s one-of-a-kind, and they could have sold it for a tremendously high price. Instead, they took it directly to the Archaeological Society, faithful to their nomadic way of life. Bedouin, in Arabic, means ‘desert dweller’.”
“Had I found it I woulda sold it,” said Mario.
“No surprise here,” replied his sister. “You’d do almost anything for money.”
Mario’s love of money was no secret, he planned to be a millionaire before he was thirty and already had a sizeable stash in a savings account, for a fifteen-year-old. They all had side jobs mowing lawns, baby-sitting or tutoring and when they went out for lunch Mario always chose the least expensive meal. No amount of teasing could shake his resolve.
“How did the skeleton turn to crystal?” asked Alex. She was looking at the photograph on the flyer.
“Scientists can’t agree. Either from a meteor or water infiltration from a now extinct quartz deposit. I’d say the second is closer to the truth, a bird’s fragile bones could never resist the impact of such an explosion, unless of course the air passages created a significant chemical reaction causing instantaneous fossilization, 150 million years ago.”
It had rained almost every afternoon for a month when the newscaster cheerfully announced sunny weather the rest of the week. On cue, the clouds opened revealing patches of insanely blue sky. The pleasant climate and the much-anticipated exhibit meant many rain-weary visitors that weekend. It was spring break and the friends decided to return when there would be less of a crowd.
Zahni wanted to take a quick look at extraordinary crystal fossil before leaving, so while the others visited the botanical gardens he made his way resolutely through the throng. The advantage of being a smallish nine-year-old is one can slip through crowds without anyone getting overtly upset.
The skeleton was propped on a pedestal and lit from behind, much like his table in the shed only upright. He took a couple of pictures before a guard noticed, and sat on a bench near the entrance where he was to meet up with the others. Two men caught his attention. Despite the warm day they wore jackets and seemed out of place. Were they hiding something? He put his head over his book and pretended to read. They chatted some but mostly they scanned the crowd. Probably security guards. He lost interest and studied the image on the flyer of the crystallized skeleton that had scientists stumped.
“Oh-my-gosh!” Alex cried. Kadir and Zahni ran from the kitchen to the television room where she was watching the news. She pointed to the screen.
“It’s been stolen!”
Chief Masterson was on the steps of the museum, speaking to reporters. The image changed from Masterson to a photo of the skeleton, the same as the one on the flyer.
Zahni stared, mesmerized.
The theft was no small matter for the residents of Half Moon. The Museum of History, bequeathed to the City by the Dubois family in 1947, had no entrance fee and locals donated their time to keep it open. To volunteer was a title of honor. The same way snobs brag about descending from the Mayflower, certain families could trace their pro-bono pedigree back several generations. One long-standing institution committed to the museum was the Ladies Garden Club, whose board of directors maintained the botanical gardens. Not to be deceived by the frosted hair, pastel cardigans and porcelain teacups. They commandeered a powerful and organized network of volunteers that could push back an enemy, if ever it should come to that, over State lines.
Along with the deed, M. Dubois provided the museum with a trust fund, with the stipulation that its doors would always be open to the public at no cost. It was vital that it remain a “center of learning for every individual who may so desire to improve, independent of his or her financial situation, color of skin, or religious belief.” However, the cast-iron structure of the dome needed reinforcing, and the profits from the museum store and restaurant were not enough to cover the cost of major restoration. Some council members at City Hall felt there should be an entrance fee, and the suggestion to change the bylaws had been a cause of contention for years, each mayor kicking the problem down the road. A few government grants provided only temporary relief.
Mayor Whitfield strongly opposed an entrance fee and the only alternative was to raise taxes. Never popular. He realized that taking such a position on this controversial problem could compromise his second term. He presented his case at the Town Hall meeting.
“You know the story of the Golden Goose. The museum is our goose that draws visitors from all over. They dine at our restaurants and buy in our stores. If we charge an entrance fee it will be like killing the goose; there will be less visitors and our revenues overall will drop. Once this happens, even if we change our minds it will take some time before people come back to Half Moon.”
It made sense and it was voted to increase local taxes, temporarily, until the museum was renovated. The Ladies Garden Club agreed to raise money to match another grant, and the matter was finally put to rest. A year later the dome was restored, and the display of prehistoric birds, with the main attracting being the crystal skeleton, was the first exhibit.
Zahni convinced his sister and the twins to accompany him to the museum the morning after the theft. There was no plan, just walk around then swim in the lake. He’d developed the pictures he took the day before and offhand they did not reveal what was bothering him. He could not explain why he felt the skeleton at the museum on Saturday wasn’t the original. To his practiced eye it didn’t look like the one on the pamphlet, something about the transparency. Professor Halabi, Zahni’s mentor at the Lyceum, agreed to send him the research on the crystallized fossil except it would take a week for the package to arrive. He was particularly interested in the ex-rays. No use notifying the police without evidence, he knew Detective Khan would tell him to stay out of it. Anyway, why steal a fake?
Unless the thief didn’t know it was a fake.